‘If we have a good Christmas, we will all make it’: An interview with bookseller Fiona Stager

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.’

Avid Reader 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.

West End business centre, Brisbane

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

Darryl Dymock

 

In the next blog, I’ll bring you another perspective on writing and publishing: a video interview with a key figure in editing.

A bumper restart blog

Good intentions

There’s an old saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The lack of activity on my blog in recent times has not been due to lack of intention but rather, lack of time. This has been a busy year, including a period spent in the UK, Finland, Sweden and Norway, as well as a short teaching stint in Singapore. Since I believe writers shouldn’t procrastinate, however, I’m determined to restore my regular blog and to let those generous people who were following it know that I have not neglected my writing since I last posted here. So here’s a bumper blog for the restart.

With Assoc Prof Sarojni Choy and Singapore students July 2015

With Assoc Prof Sarojni Choy and Singapore students July 2015

Conscripted!

Imagine that you’ve completed your teacher training in an Australian state or territory, and have just spent your first full year in front of a class. The next year, without your willing consent, but with the full force of the law, you’re in the Army. If you’re lucky, you may still be teaching, but not in a school, and not in Australia…

From 1965 to 1973, during the Vietnam War period, almost 64,000 young Australian men were conscripted by ballot into a two-year term of ‘National Service’ with the Australian Army. Over 15,000 of these conscripts were sent to assist the American war effort in Vietnam, but some 300 National Servicemen, who had been school teachers before their call-up, were quietly posted with the Royal Australian Army Educational Corps to the then Territory of Papua New Guinea for roughly 12-month periods. Colloquially known as ‘Chalkies’, the conscripted teachers served in the 3000-strong Pacific Islands Regiment, assisting an Australian Government effort to prepare TPNG for self-government and eventually independence.

Chalkies in Territory of Papua New Guinea

Chalkies in Territory of Papua New Guinea 1971

With the aid of an Australian Government Army History Research Grant and a small reference group of ex-Chalkies, I’m currently writing the history of that scheme, drawing on official records (ask me about the frustrations of archival research sometime, when you have an hour or two to spare), historical commentaries, and more recently, the responses of more than 70 ex-Chalkies to a national survey. This is a little-known story, and the recollections of those teachers provide a fascinating picture of young men suddenly catapulted from their school classrooms into the military, of how they survived the experience, and what it meant to them.

I presented a paper about this scheme at an international adult education conference in the UK in July, and am aiming to develop the fuller material into a non-fiction book. As a writer, I’m enjoying the challenge of capturing the diversity of stories, not to mention the humour and sometimes the pathos of individual experiences. Remarkable stories in unique circumstances.

Writers group

I’ve been meeting every few months with three other writers as a spin-off from a very successful workshop I ran for the Queensland Writers Centre in 2014, ‘Harnessing research for writing’. The four of us discuss our work and read from it, and at the last meeting we also shared our thoughts on a favourite or impactful* book.

To protect their privacy, I won’t mention the other members by name, but they have also been developing their writing: one has finished a novel based on true events in Asia and Australia, and is seeking publication; another has found a satisfying online outlet for his writing, which is based on his particular professional expertise; and the other member of the group is researching a 19th century soldier with American origins and an Australian demise, with the intention of writing a biography. It’s a very supportive and productive group.

*Hand up if you think this is a real word.

Baffled by Baffle Creek?

If you’ve never heard of Baffle Creek, that’s understandable, especially if you don’t come from the mid-coast of Queensland. I hadn’t heard of it either until Kevin Sommerfeld contacted me to see if I’d be interested in writing a history of the Baffle, as it’s known locally. My name had been suggested to him by Lex Rowland OAM, who chairs the Board of the Hinkler Hall of Aviation in the coastal city of Bundaberg, where Lex ‘launched’ my book, Hustling Hinkler, a little while back.

Baffle Creek, which is more like a river, empties into the sea just north of Bundaberg,

Baffle Creek

Baffle Creek

and Kevin grew up in that area.  He’s been assembling historical material for some years,but felt he needed some assistance to write the story. After meeting with Kevin, who lives about an hour’s drive from my place in Brisbane, Queensland, we agreed that I would take the lead in using the material he had collected to write a jointly-authored article for the Queensland History Journal. It was a lot of work, but we beavered away, and the result is a 6000-word peer-reviewed article, ‘Baffle Creek: the changing fortunes of an inland waterway’, which was published in the August 2015 edition of that journal. Kevin and I patted each other on the back via telephone.

Lifelong learning

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a strong proponent of lifelong learning (e.g. see my book, Extending your use-by date, and the Griffith Review essay, ‘Working late’), and am currently co-editing a book, Supporting learning across working life: Models, processes and practices, which will be published by the international academic publisher, Springer, later this year.  I’m also contributing as an author to three chapters in that publication.

Finally…
I believe in that adage that writers should also be readers, and read on average a book a week.  Just in case you think from what I’ve written above that I’m only into non-fiction, much of my recreational reading is crime novels and thrillers, and an occasional historical novel. I’m also working on a fiction novel and a couple of short stories, all based on real-life events.

What are you reading at the moment?

Darryl Dymock