If, like me, your senses respond to the feel and smell of books in a bookshop, you’ll like Avid Reader.
This award-winning independent bookstore has been in the high street at West End in Brisbane for 22 years and has firmly established itself in the local community. In recent years they’ve spun off a successful children’s bookshop next door: ‘Where the Wild Things Are’.
But the past few months of 2020 have been tough for storefront bookshops, and I recently talked to co-owner Fiona Stager about how Avid Reader has coped. This is an edited version of that telephone conversation. It first appeared on the guest blogger page at Margaret River Press in August 2020.
First I asked Fiona about changes she’d seen in publishing in the past two decades. You can listen to her response in this audio clip.
The developments Fiona mentions in that audio clip were of course all before a certain pandemic swept across the world and turned many businesses upside down, including bookshops.
I asked Fiona how Avid Reader had responded to the constraints of Covid-19 measures. You can hear her reply in this audio clip.
Despite the limitations of Zoom-based events, Fiona says they will continue with them after the current restrictions have gone:
Using Zoom has really allowed us to engage with a much wider audience. Each time we’ve done a Zoom there’s been an interesting story that’s come out of it. After our first Zoom event we did a survey: ‘I’ve always wanted to come to your events but I live in Western Australia’; ‘I used to come to all your events but now I’ve moved out of Brisbane and with Zoom I can come to all your events.’
Fiona has also moved all her book clubs to Zoom. But despite the geographically expanded audience, she says that sales are down compared to walk-in events. With an in-store book launch, for example, people often not only buy that book, but they also browse the shelves, and pick up other books that appeal to them on the spur of the moment. Nevertheless, Fiona says they will continue with Zoom even when face-to-face events restart because they know it does reach people beyond the immediately reachable community:
For any number of reasons people can’t come to the shop, but we’ve built such a strong reputation that people jumped at the chance of coming to Zoom events. It’s really opened up the world for us. It also means we can curate our program to even finer detail. So we’ve been able to match the best interviewer for the author, and they don’t have to be in the same city. For example one author was in Melbourne and the interviewer was in Sydney.
‘An ecosystem of small business’
Fiona actively fosters a sense of community, not only among the bookshop’s clients, but also among local businesses. She says that after such a long time in West End, she sees Avid Reader as an ‘anchor tenant’ which relies on other small businesses but has an obligation to them as well:
I made a commitment to our staff, our publishers and writers that we would be here after this [the Covid-19 shutdown]. But also I was really committed to being here for other businesses around us. It’s an important ecosystem of small business, that we all really need each other. That’s something I’m really passionate about.
And there’s been unexpected spin-off from the constraints:
I must say I’ve never been so pleased to be near a chemist. I’ve always thought it was important to be near good retailers, like a good shoe shop, good fashion, good food, a good bakery … . But now, I think it’s been really great to have been close to a chemist. People come out and go to the chemist for something, and then they come to us because the chemist is right next door.
Clearly Fiona is always on the lookout for ways her own business can survive alongside and with the other retailers in West End. But as a bookshop, Avid Reader faces particular challenges at this time.
I asked Fiona about her predictions for the future of publishing and book-selling in Australia in the coming months. You can hear her response here:
Fiona added that in the emerging sales climate, not all the books released later in the year will make it. And that’s got nothing to do with the quality of the books, she says, but to the fact that they’re ‘competing for everything from our shelf space to media and what will get coverage and traction.’
As for Avid Reader itself, I asked Fiona how she was feeling about the bookshop’s future in the midst of this uncertainty. You can listen to her prognosis here:
Fiona’s response is the experienced and pragmatic voice of someone who’s been in the book trade for more than 20 years. It’s clear she sees some hurdles and unknowns ahead. As with the spread of the pandemic itself, retail businesses are in uncharted territory, with a compass we’re all learning to use as we go along.
Nevertheless, in the midst of predictions of retail gloom and doom, and her struggles to maintain a solid client base, Fiona maintains a pro-active and optimistic outlook. Not that she hasn’t had her doubts. ‘At one stage I was just too stressed to read anything,’ she told me. ‘But now I’ve got myself out of that hole.’
So, with the stock of a whole bookshop to choose from, what does Fiona like to read?
I read mostly new fiction. I read a little bit of non-fiction. It will often depend if I’m being any kind of book judge – if I’m judging a literary award, I will read fiction, non-fiction, children’s books as well, and a little bit of young adult.
You’ve probably realised by now that Avid Reader is not only a bookshop but a dynamic part of its local community. We need all the publishing outlets our pockets can sustain, and power to them, but independent bookshops seem to have a special place in our communities, whether you visit them in person or online. And at the end of the year, you might think of Fiona’s prediction that for authors, publishers and booksellers alike, ‘it will depend how Christmas goes’.
Until next time
In the next blog, I’ll bring you another perspective on writing and publishing: a video interview with a key figure in editing.
I’m chuffed that a Haiku I entered in an international Covid-19 Lockdown competition run by Fish Publishing in Ireland made the shortlist (although it didn’t win):
There were 1436 entries for the Haiku, Poetry and Pocket Prose categories and the competition raised the equivalent of around AU$7000 for OXFAM’s Coronavirus Emergency Appeal.
Haiku is a Japanese form of short poetry comprising exactly 17 syllables. It’s normally written in three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five, but the competition sponsors indicated that on this occasion they would be flexible about the structure.
Technically, in Japanese literature, Haiku tend to be about nature, while a similar short form, Senryū, is more about human foibles.
Morning mist, Tamar River, Tasmania
Here’s another Haiku I wrote, on a similar theme:
only druggies and astronauts
were spaced out
Until next time
What writers say:
The shadow deepens at the edges of the scene. I hope we come out of it all the wiser.
My last post on this site was 4 March, and what a topsy turvy time we’ve all had in the days since then!
To think that just a couple of months ago most of us had never heard of coronavirus – now tens of thousands have lost their lives to Covid-19, and hundreds of thousands across the world have been stricken with the virus.
Distancing at the take-away coffee shop
Surely ‘social distancing’ will have to be the phrase of the year if not the decade.
In this not so brave new world, individuals, small businesses and corporations have had their lives turned upside down.
For writers, it’s sad to see bookshops struggling to survive as shoppers’ movements become restricted, because we know how much we depend on them to keep the printed word in front of readers.
A couple of independent local bookshops in my hometown of Brisbane have responded in innovative ways. Riverbend Books, where I launched Hustling Hinkler, has closed its physical doors but has introduced free local delivery and a ‘Drive Thru’ service. I can forgive their mangling of ‘through’ when I hear that ‘cars are rolling through the car park all day picking up orders’.
Suzy Wilson, Riverbend Books
Riverbend’s owner, Suzy Wilson, thanked customers for the many kind words that had come their way in the past week. ‘They’ve done much to keep our spirits up,’ she said.
Across town, Avid Reader bookshop, where I launched The Chalkies, has introduced a free local bicycle delivery service for the surrounding area, and promises same day delivery. Apparently it’s keeping Rachel (pictured) fit and happy. Win-win.
Avid Reader’s owner, Fiona Stager, is also encouraging customers to support other small stores in the area. ‘Every purchase at a local small business makes a big difference at the moment,’ she said.
Fiona Stager, Avid Reader
The challenge is of course, to sustain this support. As Ed Nawotka said in the Los Angeles Times on 25 March, the concern is that these responses to local initiatives are just a temporary show of collective goodwill. Let’s hope they’re not.
As I was writing this, on my playlist Ben Lee was singing, very appropriately, ‘We’re all in this together’.
Let’s continue to support each other each other in this weird and uncertain time, and believe that our bookshops will still be going when we come out at the other end.
I certainly hope so, because I’ve no doubt that writers across the world are taking advantage of their enforced isolation to churn out hundreds of thousands of words, and many of them will be looking for a publishing outlet. Let’s hope the publishers survive too.
I’m a great believer in the notion that opportunities spring from taking advantage of other opportunities – say ‘Yes’ to one and see what might happen!
Last year at the last minute I registered for a Queensland Writers Centre workshop, ‘The Spaces Between: An Introduction to Poetic Writing’, with Simon Kindt. Apart from the coincidence that ‘The space between’ is the title of my short fiction that won the Roly Sussex Short Story Award three years earlier, I was interested in the possibility of introducing more poetic language into my prose writing.
Simon turned out to be a multi-talented performer who said he’d gone from being a poet to a performance poet (and MC of slam poetry events) and was now experimenting with self-accompanied music, developed on an impressive array of mind-boggling technology. He challenged us through a series of creative exercises, one of which was to let our minds float free and come up with some lines around a particular theme.
All good and all fun for the ten or so of us at the workshop, and Simon was very supportive. Then, suddenly, towards the end: ‘Now I want you to work with the person sitting alongside you to develop a creative piece from the lines you developed earlier to present to the rest of the group’. I think we had 10 minutes, always a challenge for a brain like mine.
The person sitting alongside me happened to be Maree Reedman, whom I hadn’t met before but who told me she was a poet and songwriter. I was already impressed. Maree and I talked through what might work and discovered (i.e. Maree suggested) that we could put the lines of our two pieces together alternately and that the piece overall would make sense as a poem. Great! I thought to myself. ‘And,’ said Maree, reaching under her chair, ‘I also have my ukulele.’ I tried not to look too surprised. ‘How about I accompany us on the uke?’ she said. Hey, this was a workshop for opening the mind, especially mine, so of course I agreed.
Long story short: all the workshop participants excelled themselves with creativity, and Maree and I received an especially long burst of applause and a thumbs up from Simon for our uke-accompanied alternating poem.
As we packed up to leave, Maree casually turned to me and said, ‘There’s a café at West End (Brisbane) that does public readings once a month. It’s called Wild Readings. How about we do this again over there?’ I’d never done anything like that before but, after the slightest hesitation, I said, ‘Why not? I’m up for it.’
The Wild Readings organisers were gracious enough to give us a spot, as you can see from the pics on this page, and we not only did our joint presentation, but Maree and I each did a little piece of our own. Good fun! As I said at the beginning of this article, say ‘Yes’ to one opportunity and see what might happen!
Until next time
What writers say:
I knew that the world around you is only uninteresting if you can’t see what is really going on. The place you come from is always the most exotic place you’ll ever encounter because it is the only place where you recognise how many secrets and mysteries there are in people’s lives. ~ David Malouf
I have written in an earlier blog about how I occasionally resort to writing parts of a story by hand when it starts to become bogged down. Not so much writer’s block as uncreativity. In other words, it sounds boring.
So I was interested to see the results of a survey of 2000 people undertaken by a Deakin University (Australia) researcher in conjunction with the retail firm Officeworks, which found that those who handwrite their thoughts and feelings were two and half times more likely to experience relief from anxiety, fear and worry than those who use a keyboard for the same purpose.
I don’t know that I’ve noticed any improved emotional level in myself, but I do think that the kinaesthetics involved in writing by hand do help to stimulate my creativity (eventually anyway!).
I often find that, when handwriting, I cross out bits, put arrows up and down to show where text might best belong, and write notes or queries to myself in the margin to help guide my second effort when I go back to the keyboard. It can look pretty messy.
I know that technically I could do the same things on my laptop or my tablet, but the scribbling and scrawling by hand seems to free up my thinking.
That second effort, at the keyboard, then becomes an editing process because I invariably change what I handwrote, hopefully for the better.
I understand J K Rowling writes her novels by hand first. I wonder if she feels relief from anxiety, fear and worry when she’s finished? Richer in some way, at any rate 🙂
Papa Hemingway on writing
The American novelist Ernest Hemingway (often called ‘Papa’ by those who knew him) once said he wrote thirty different endings to A farewell to arms. He told this to a distinguished Australian journalist and war correspondent, Alan Moorehead, when the two met in Italy in 1949.
In a biography of Moorehead by Thornton McCamish (Black Inc, 2016), the Australian writer says: ‘I do not know how [Hemingway] talked to other people, but with me he talked books, always of writing, and with the humility and doubt of a writer who reads for five hours or so every day, and who writes and rewrites for as long as his brain will work, knowing that it is only by a miracle that he will ever achieve a phrase, even a word, that will correspond to the vision in his mind.’
Fellow writers will know the feeling about getting it right. But how many of us read for five hours a day? And produce 30 different endings?
In a recent critique of Hemingway’s writing (Yale University Press, 2015), the Australian-born author and literary critic, Clive James, praised the American’s early novels but suggested that Hemingway’s later work was ‘ruined’. James said that Hemingway, ‘having noticed how the narrative charm of a seemingly objective style would put a gloss on reality automatically, he habitually stood on the accelerator instead of the brake. … He overstated even the understatements.’
Lesson: Don’t overdo it.
Until next time
What writers say:
Finally you get to an age when a book’s power to make you think becomes the first thing you notice about it. You can practically sense that power when you pick it up.
Regular readers of this column will know that I recently wrote a book about working into later life, Extending your use-by date. Strange as it may seem, the theme of the book is linked to a recent change of policy in China. That country’s government has recently announced the end of its controversial one-child policy. Couples will now be allowed to have two children.
The reason for the Chinese Government’s reversal of policy is not a sudden concern to meet parents’ wishes, but because it has finally realised it needs to do something drastic to address the ageing of the population and the lack of young people coming through to replace them in the workforce.
This is not a problem only for China. According to the United Nations, the proportion of the world’s population aged 60 years or over was 12 per cent in 2013, and is expected to reach 21 per cent in 2050. The spread is uneven, however, with the least developed nations less affected.
Examples from developing economies include: Singapore: by 2030, one in five citizens is likely to be 65 and above as compared to one in nine in 2015; UK: in the next five years, the total population is forecast to rise by 3%, but the numbers aged over 65 are expected to increase by 12%; USA: by 2060, the numbers of older people is forecast to reach about 98 million older persons, more than twice their number in 2013.
In Australia, the proportion of Australians over the age of 65 is around 13%. In the next 40 years or so that figure is expected to almost double to about a quarter of the population – around eight million people. At the same time, the birth rate is declining.
For China and Australia and other developed countries, one issue is that there will be fewer people in the workforce, which has implications for both maintaining productivity and for the amount of revenue raised through taxation.
An ageing population will also potentially place heavier demands on health services and, in countries that provide government pensions for their citizens, on the welfare budget.
That is why some countries, including Australia, the UK, and France, have announced an increase in the retirement age, i.e. the age at which such a pension becomes payable.
Keeping older people in the workforce is therefore arguably something to aim for, especially as people are now living longer, and hence potentially capable of continuing to work.
The potential benefits are that the level of productivity is maintained, taxes are still being collected, and older workers have more money in their pockets, and are arguably more content with their lot. I say ‘arguably’ because some people hate their jobs or have health issues and just can’t wait to retire.
Here there comes the hitch, the fly in the ointment, the snag, the unexpected obstacle: age discrimination.
In the same week that China announced the repeal of its one-child policy, an Australian report revealed that a Government scheme to encourage employers to take on older workers had been a flop.
Introduced in 2014, the Restart scheme offered employers $10,000 over two years to employ people over 50, who had been unemployed and on income support for at least six months. The intention was to jack up the Australian mature-age workforce by 32,000 every year but, according to the New Daily, the actual number was 2318, around 7% of the target.
The $ amount was never enough to entice employers over a two-year period, and from November 1 the Government has reduced the period to 12 months, but not increased the figure to employers.
The real stumbling block, however, is not the money, it’s employer (and social) attitudes. Older people consistently find it difficult if not impossible, to be re-employed after leaving work voluntarily or through a redundancy.
This is despite the mounting evidence that people are capable of learning and training into older age, and that they have built up skills and knowledge that can contribute significantly to an organisation’s well-being.
This is not an issue only in Australia. The Huffington Post reported that a Georgia Institute of Technology review of the U.S. government’s 2014 Displaced Worker Survey found that someone 50 years or older is likely to be unemployed for almost six weeks longer than someone between the ages of 30 and 49, and close to eleven weeks longer than people between the ages of 20 and 29.
The study also discovered that the odds of being re-employed decrease by 2.6 percent for each one-year increase in age.
In Australia, the Human Rights Commission found that more than a quarter of 2000 workers surveyed said they had been discriminated against because of their age.
So, although the workforce is ageing, older people are living longer (and staying heathier too), and the proportion of younger people is declining, it’s still tough for older people to get back into work once they’ve left it, because of employer and societal attitudes.
The big question is: will those attitudes change in the face of a changing population age profile, and of the potential for productivity and hence the standard of living to drop because those older workers who want to work are being denied the opportunity?
Until next time
What writers say:
Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer. ~ Barbara Kingsolver
A boulder from a Queensland beach is now resting on the side of an Italian mountain, as a memorial to the trail-blazing Australian aviator, Bert Hinkler.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I wrote a biography of the famous pilot, Hustling Hinkler, which was published by Hachette in 2013.
Bert Hinkler Memorial, Mt Pratomagno, Italy
Australian Ambassador to Italy, Mike Rann, recently unveiled the memorial on the slopes of Mount Pratomagno, in Arezzo Province.
Hinkler lost his life when his single-engined Puss Moth monoplane crashed on the mountainside in April 1933, during his second attempt on the England-Australia solo record.
The local Italian community and aero club paid tribute to Hinkler at the time as a pioneer international aviator, and Mussolini’s Fascist government accorded him a spectacular State funeral through the streets of Florence.
Bundaberg Aero Club memorial at Hinkler Ring, Italy
So it is fitting that the Australian, Queensland and Italian governments should unite in support of a memorial to the gallant flier at the place where he crashed.
The boulder is now a feature of an eight-kilometre long mountain trekking path, called The Hinkler Ring, inaugurated by the Italian Alpine Club’s Arezzo Branch.
The memorial was the brainchild of Queenslander, Kevin Lindeberg, who met one of the finders of Hinkler’s crashed plane, Gino Tocchioni , in 1974, and so knew where the crash site was.
Bundaberg City Council arranged for the 1.4 tonne basalt boulder to be transported to Italy from Mon Repos Beach, where Bert Hinkler first flew, in 1912, in a glider of his own design.
Hinkler Ring Memorial Walk. Italy
A time capsule buried in the base of the monument includes letters from the recently deposed Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk. About 200 people attended the August ceremony, including Australian, British and Italian dignitaries, and Hinkler’s great nephew John Hinkler.
Here is an extract from the Prologue to Hustling Hinkler, the only piece of ‘creative’ non-fiction in the book, about Bert Hinkler’s final flight, in April 1933:
“When he passed over the city of Florence around 10 am local time, he was already behind the schedule he’d mapped out. By now he’d been in the air for seven hours, and he was weary from the drone of the engine and battling the elements. Hinkler wished he’d been able to leave London three months earlier, as he’d originally intended, when the weather – and Air Ministry officials! – might have been kinder to him.
He could see cloud on the mountains distantly ahead, and the thought of diverting to Rome attracted him for a moment, but just as quickly he dismissed the idea – any diversion would mean less chance of breaking the record, and his future depended on achieving that goal. He continued south towards Brindisi. As soon as he’d made the decision to go on, patchy cloud began to snatch at the cockpit, and he could feel the cold drilling deeper into his bones. Sharp fingers of wind continued to push and pull at the plane, and for a moment Hinkler wondered if he sensed another tremor through the wings, but dismissed the thought as he wrestled with the controls.
Up ahead, through the clouds, he glimpsed the snow blanketing the Pratomagno mountains. He knew the highest point of the range, the Croce del Pratomagno, the Cross of Pratomagno, was just over 5000 feet, but that held no fears for him – after all, he’d crossed the much higher Italian Alps earlier in the day. Just so long as the winds were not too violent, and the plane held together . . .”
Till next time
What writers say:
Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidarity to pure wind. ~ George Orwell
I’ve never been one for making New Year resolutions, or rather, specific New Year resolutions, but at the beginning of each year I always feel an urge to do better in some way. (Mind you, the fact that I ‘m writing this on the first day of February might indicate that overcoming procrastination could be a specific goal worth aiming for.)
While I was doing a clean-up of my study over the past few weeks (which in itself might be seen as appropriately New Yearish), I came across two clippings, that, on re-reading, seem particularly appropriate for beginning a new year.
One of them is an extract from Ray Bradbury’s classic story, Fahrenheit 451:
“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it, into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.” (HarperCollins, London, 2004, p.164) In everything that I do, I’d rather be the gardener than the guy who just cuts the lawn. I think of my late sister-in-law, Monica, who was about the same age as me when she died 18 months ago, and how her memory still lives on in the lives of people she knew and loved, because she touched them in some way. Through her acts and words, and through her husband, children and grandchildren, she’s still there.
The other quote I came across is from Neil Finn, former member of the band ‘Crowded House’, who continues to perform. Talking about his song-writing in an interview published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Finn said:
“When something looks effortless, like it always existed, like it rolled out of you like a river, then you have done a good job. But what makes that up is painful, small steps, craft, skulduggery, anything that gets you over the line.”
I have a number of writing projects on the go this year, and my aim is to make all of my writing look ‘effortless’. But I know that will require ‘painful, small steps and craft’ and that magic ingredient Finn calls ‘skulduggery’. There is also another element, which he doesn’t mention: just getting on with it. Sit down and write.
For 2015, may your gardens be well tended and your creativity roll out of you like a river. “It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it, into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.”
Flanagan, who earlier had won the 2014 Man Booker Prize for the same publication, said at the PM’s event, ‘If me standing here means anything, it’s that literacy can change lives.’ Arch Nelson passionately believed that too, and in the introduction to On the importance of being literate, he wrote: ‘The level of literacy in our society is an index of the respect, the affection and the compassion we have for each other, and … these things … are – or should be – basic to our way of life.’
Flanagan showed his own passion for literacy by donating his prize-money to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF), an organisation dedicated to improving literacy among Australian Aboriginal people in remote and isolated areas. In making the gesture, Flanagan brought the wheel of writing and reading full circle – the ILF was founded by the owner of the well-known Brisbane indie bookstore, Riverbend, in 2005, and has been supported by the Australian Book Industry ever since. I also donate a portion of my writing income to the ILF, but unfortunately my book sales are not in Flanagan’s league 😦
Like Flanagan and Nelson, my experience as a researcher and an educator convinces me that literacy can change lives, because it helps people take control of their lives. To paraphrase radical Brazilian educator, the late Paolo Freire, literacy helps us to read the word and the world.
It was therefore disconcerting to read in the Sydney Morning Herald of 13-14 December, 2014 that primary and high school students in New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, are not achieving literacy and numeracy targets, and that children starting the first year of school are less academically prepared for the transition than they were three years ago (p. 5).
This is despite the introduction of standardised tests at regular intervals at school, and the fact that some 96% of the state’s children were involved in some sort of pre-school program.
I don’t claim to know why improvements aren’t coming, but I do know what I first learned some 30 years ago when I was Secretary of the Australian Council for Adult Literacy: the acquisition of literacy is a complex process, that the ‘aha’ moment of ‘cracking the code’ comes for different individuals at different times, that no single ‘system’ or strategy of teaching works for everyone, and that learning to read and write is a long-term proposition, not something acquired overnight, especially for adults who may have had unhappy experiences of school, and have been out of the classroom for a long time.
Not only do writers have a vested interest in having a literate population, but, like Arch Nelson (and, I suspect, Richard Flanagan), I believe that the level of literacy in a nation is a mark of the extent to which we are able to understand the world in a critical way, to respond to it, and to participate meaningfully and sensibly in it.