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2001-12, 332, Autobiography, Bookshops, John Thawley

‘The Grisly Wife’s Tale’

I was brought up with books. My parents loved reading and as children we were encouraged to read. A book for birthdays and Christmas was the norm. Every Saturday morning my father would take one of his four children into Brisbane city and visit either Barkers Bookstore or The Queensland Book Depot where at least an hour would be spent. He would choose three or four books, a mixture of theology (he was a clergyman), literary criticism and novels – I hasten to add, never one by an Australian author, and I shall return to this later. I, or one of my siblings, would be allowed to chose one book for ourselves. My parents did not have a television until I was eight, nor a car until I was in my teens. It was of course a different generation where, as a family, reading and discussing books were perhaps more commonplace. It was the 1960s, there were fewer distractions and the world proceeded at a slower pace. There were no mobile phones, indeed some houses had no phone at all, no computers, usually only one working parent, etc. I am not saying that this is necessarily a good thing but there was I believe more time and opportunity to read. Times have of course changed but I make brief mention of the environment in which I was raised as it helped create a lifelong interest in books. I will return to this different environment briefly later on with some anecdotes about attitudes of some customers in The GrislyWife Bookshop.

My first job was at La Trobe University Library, where I was a Selection Librarian in the then named Selection Division. My job was to check selections by senior library and teaching staff. After a period of six or so months I was encouraged to select material myself and was also in charge of the Library’s desiderata file of wanted but out-of-print books. Since it was a young university, there were many items required and I would spend at least three or four hours most days scanning secondhand catalogues from all corners of the globe. I soon became aware of vast disparities in prices being sought by overseas and Australian dealers for similar material. At that stage in the mid 1970s it was not uncommon to see something in a UK or US catalogue at a fraction of what some Australian book dealers were seeking for the same title in similar condition. I started buying for myself, as long as it was not something that the Library wanted. My flat, much to my wife’s dismay, gradually started filling up with books and so I decided to start sending out catalogues. I had no client base or mailing list, of course, so I simply forwarded catalogues to Australian book dealers and libraries. I also persuaded my brother-in-law to invest some funds, purchased more material and, because I might be known to some of the librarians, sent him into the State Library of Victoria occasionally with boxes of books. Many of these to our delight were frequently purchased. Things gradually got out of control however. I was constantly having to go to the post office to send telegrams to reserve books, or go to the bank to get sterling or $US bank drafts, and people started ringing up wanting to come and view my collection when they received one of my catalogues. Because most of my items were competitively priced (and still are by the way!) they were quickly snapped up, so most of my so-called collection consisted of what was in my current catalogue. People thought there must be more, however, and started turning up at weekends and evenings. I would let them in apologetically and then they would see that my offerings were indeed restricted predominantly to what was in my current catalogue. Some were quite angry, as if I had misled them. Others were polite yet obviously disappointed. Book collectors are, as we all know, a mixed bunch. Anyway the crunch came when I saw a book in a secondhand catalogue which was called Travels in the Coal Fields of New South Wales, published in the late 1800s, I seem to remember. Before I purchased it I checked Ferguson and the price guides which were available and the card catalogues at major Melbourne libraries. I could not find it anywhere so I thought that two pounds was a very reasonable price. It arrived and my fourth catalogue was ready to go. I added this rare item putting, I think, $50 on it with a note about its scarcity. One of Australia’s leading bookdealers bought it the very moment he received the catalogue but a few days later the book was back in my postbox. Across the invoice he had written “This book is titled Travels in the Coal Fields of South Wales not New South Wales, you idiot.” I ceased my secondhand book dealing activities almost immediately and gave my complete attention to my work. Over the next 20 plus years I worked for the Bicentennial History Project, Swinburne Institute of Technology and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. In the mid-1990s I went to the State Library of Victoria with a brief to produce their Collection Development Policy. I had just completed that document when my wife was invited to go to Detroit, Michigan, where her employer had a US subsidiary. This, although I did not realise it then, was the genesis of The Grisly Wife Bookshop and my current collection.

We were in Detroit for three years. I was not permitted to work and through chance started book collecting again. At a work functionone night my wife’s supervisor mentioned how there was a huge warehouse in downtown Detroit which claimed it had over one million books. He knew that I read a lot and was a librarian and thought I might be interested. Downtown Detroit is a no-go zone for the vast majority of Michiganders and we had been warned as naive Australians about venturing anywhere near there. There is little to do in Detroit though, and eventually I decided to pay a visit. Sure enough there was this bookshop of some five or six storeys with, if not a million books, certainly close to it. Off and on for the next two years I would spend 2 days a week on average scouring the shelves. There were some nice finds. The first US edition of The Magic Pudding, a few Tasma’s, much Aboriginal material, some early Patrick Whites, etc. When Kay could manage time off we would pay flying visits interstate to bookshops where we would compete to find books of Australian interest. We would feel very patriotic on occasions when we found books with Australian bookstore stickers in them and we often commented to each other how we were bringing items home to their rightful location. One weekend we read about a new bookstore opening in Texas. Owned by the American novelist Larry McMurtry, the shop claimed to have over 500,000 books. A few weeks later we flew to Houston or Dallas, we cannot quite remember which, and then drove for some three hours to the North of Texas to a place near Wichita Falls. It was a very small country town, very much like the town in that wonderful film The Last Picture Show: mostly derelict, struggling, no blacks, asleep. The bookshop was there though and our hearts lifted as it looked huge. In we went, and there were some 2,000 books, mostly popular, by second-rate American writers, in poor condition in a small front room. I saw a curtain and looked behind, where there were many, many thousands of books. “Hey, there you can’t go in that area”. We explained that we were from Michigan and would be returning to Australia soon so unable to come again. This was all to no avail. “You’all have a nice day,” they said as we left.

With the Detroit bookstore, visits to Illinois, Wisconsin, Milwaukee, the Carolinas, Toronto, etc. and, incidentally, purchases from Internet book sites, which were in their early days, we had amassed well over 5,000 books when the three years were up. Kay was then asked to go to the UK for three years. I had got used to not working and so the book buying continued in Britain.

Our time in the UK was restricted to one year, as Kay was asked to take up a new position back home at short notice and we returned to Australia. Some 5000 plus books duly arrived in hundreds of boxes. For the next two years we lived in Carlton. It was then that I decided to restrict my book-buying predominantly to Australian literature. After buying a house in Ivanhoe we discovered a small shop which was available in Eaglemont about three minutes from home. We had originally thought I would start the business from home before opening a bookshop, but my collection had since grown to some 10,000 books and, rather than move the books we were interested in selling to our new house and then subsequently to a shop, we decided to proceed with the shop right away. Thus started The GrislyWife Bookshop.

Bookbuying experiences.

Before I talk about the shop and my own collection I thought readers might be interested in some experiences in secondhand bookstores. We had many experiences in the US and the UK, and I must say that the ones relating to bookstores are among the ones that we remember the most vividly. This is probably because this is where we spent most of our spare time together. Sometimes we  would go to a large secondhand or rare bookstore only to discover we had been pipped at the post. There was one large store in Chicago which we visited. It was huge like most things in Chicago, but when we enquired of the proprietor about Australian material we were told that a bookdealer from Australia (I will not mention their name) had been there just ten days ago and cleaned him out of Australian material. A similar thing happened in Scotland when I visited a town in the southwest which was setting itself up as booktown à la Hay-on-Wye. There was one very large bookstore, among the seven or so that then had set up business, but the shelves labelled Australia and the South Pacific were fairly empty compared to other shelves. Upon enquiry I was again informed that a bookdealer from Australia had been there recently and bought a lot of material. He did not mention their name and I did not ask, but there was a visitor’s book and there it was. The only comforting factor was that it was a different dealer from the Chicago raider! On another occasion in Toronto (we escaped there whenever we could to get away from poor food, poor society and to feel normal) we visited a small bookstore which specialised in art. I asked whether they had much Australian material and was shown a rather small collection of quite common items. Just as I was leaving, a rather elderly gentleman introduced himself as the owner and said that he had heard I was interested in Australian items. He mumbled about how he had a cabinet upstairs choc-abloc with Australian-related material he had collected over the last 40 or so years and asked me whether I would like to have a look. Naturally I replied “yes” and so up we went through several locked doors and into this amazing room overflowing with books. I was then escorted around the room, taken in and out of shelves and shown many books in which I was not the slightest bit interested. I was extremely polite, as always, and expressed great interest in everything. Eventually he remembered my particular area of collecting and took me to the cabinet. The cabinet held many hundreds of volumes, all in excellent condition, of rare Australian material ranging from early exploration works to Aboriginal material, art books, etc. He opened the cabinet, told me to feel free to browse and disappeared. I browsed for a good hour or so. It was a magnificent collection. When he returned I asked him as quietly and as unexcitedly as I could whether he wanted to sell any. “No, no,” he said, “there is one bookdealer in Australia who has been after these books for 25 years. He isn’t going to get them and I am not going to sell them to you either.” I gave him my contact details, just in case, and left. I guess there could be many reasons for his behaviour but I prefer to remember it as one of several strange bookshop experiences.

Odd secondhand bookshop experiences are not confined to overseas, however. We were some two years ago in southern NSW and stumbled across a bookstore in a small country town. We went in. “What are you interested in?” “Australian literature” I responded. “Every book in this shop is listed in the Register,” we were told, “by author and title … .” “You look up the Register, find the stock number and then go to the shelf where the books are filed in numerical order.” I mentioned how we collected pretty widely and asked if we could browse. He grumpily agreed and we proceeded to do so. The top shelves were pretty high and seeing a ladder I pulled it out and up I went. Almost immediately he came running from the shop front asking me what I was doing. I explained and was rebuffed with the Register story again. He was quite rude, verging on aggressive. I reminded him that I collected pretty widely and he eventually relented and let me go up the ladder again. Most of the stock was ordinary, but I found some items of interest and started piling them up on his counter. His demeanour changed at once and he said: “There is another room you know, out the back.” We went out the back and there was some nice material, but he had written his wretched stock numbers in ink on every book front and back. It was like the old days when libraries would stamp every 20th page, glue the dust wrapper to the book etc., without any concern for the book’s rarity or content. I was pretty fed up by now, so when we left I mentioned how I was particularly interested in certain publishers and so were many collectors these days. His register by author and title did not help with this collecting phenomenon, I explained. He looked at me worriedly and asked whether he should go through the 15,000 odd books and register every one by publisher. I said it would be worth his while. He is probably still at it!

We spent many fun evenings deciding upon the name for our bookshop, which was to specialise in Australian literature. In the end we wanted a name that would mean something to serious collectors and/or readers of Australian literature.

Because we both enjoyed Rodney Hall’s third novel The Grisly Wife in his Yandilli trilogy and he is one of Australia’s foremost living novelists, we decided on the book’s title as the name of our shop.

The other reason for choosing the name “The Grisly Wife” is that at least it would be talked about by people who heard about and saw the shop but who were unaware of the novel. The latter has proved correct. Until recently I had on a weekly basis one or two elderly ladies marching in, sometimes quite aggressively, saying: “What an awful name for a bookshop!” or “How dare you call your shop that!” Nine times out of ten they relaxed when the origin was explained. Many ladies though still walk staunchly past the window refusing to acknowledge the shop’s existence. Head held high, they will perhaps forever remain convinced that I have named the shop after them or maybe after my spouse. “The poor thing,” they must think. Many times men would come in, thinking they are highly witty and original and say: “What a great name! There are millions of them aren’t there?” Now I have a copy of Rodney Hall’s The Grisly Wife in the window and passers-by will stop, point to the book and laugh with their companion:

“No-one would call a shop by that name without such a valid reason,” or something along those lines one says to the other. I am happy with the name as it has achieved its desired aim. Rodney Hall launched the shop with a wonderful speech on April 14th 2001 when he mused about how his protagonist in the novel would have viewed such a shop. I wished we had been able to record his words that day.

The Shop.

The shop itself is a specialist shop with over 5,000 books. The vast majority are in very good or fine condiiton. This is a prerequisite for including an item unless it is rare and will always be so. Approximately 60% of the stock consists of Australian literature, the remainder consists of non-fiction in the following areas: Aborigines, General Australiana, Voyages & Travels, Natural History, South Pacific and New Guinea. The contents are frequently supplemented with reserve stock housed at home when appropriate, so the contents are not static. The non-fiction component of the shop will gradually be replaced with Australian literature, which is the raison d’ être of the shop and my own premier interest.

Another unique feature of the shop is a commitment to stock every new major work by an Australian novelist or poet as well as Australian literary reference works, biographies of Australian literary figures or works of Australian literary criticism. There are few bookshops in Melbourne or Australia where one can find fine early editions of more than half a dozen of Patrick White’s works, for example, as well as recent reprints of most of his novels. There are very few bookshops indeed where one will locate all of Gerald Murnane’s works or all of George Turner’s. Both of the latter have been seriously neglected and Turner.s works in particular are seldom found in secondhand bookshops. This is predominantly because much of his output was published in the States. The majority of the works of even more popular writers such as Jolley, Keneally and Astley are also available both in first editions and recent reprints. As far as new works are concerned, one would only find a first edition of The Dark Palace by Frank Moorhouse and the most recent Miles Franklin award-winner in a handful of bookshops. Unlike the large chains, I do not return unsold hard copy first editions of Australian novels when a paperback version is printed. As far as Australian literary reference works are concerned one would be hard-pressed to find a shop that stocks Marcie Muir’s Australian Children’s Books or a set of the ADB (Australian Dictionary of Biography) or the Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature. These and other essential Australian literary reference works are available and should be in any shop claiming to be a premier Australian Literature bookshop. The shop, as you can see, is unique.

The shop’s location is interesting. It is in The Eaglemont Village – a small shopping centre some 15 minutes from the Melbourne CBD, which seems to have stalled delightfully in the the mid-20th century. There are two shops dealing in antiques and secondhand furniture, premises selling high-quality Aboriginal art, an outlet dealing in high-quality model ship reproductions, a collectables store selling toys and ephemera from the last few decades, and quality produce shops. It is worth a visit even if you do not want to come into The GrislyWife Bookshop.

First Editions, paperbacks, proofs.

I would like to make a few comments about first editions. Some collectors, particularly of literature, have a major interest in first editions, which in some cases is all they collect. Quite often a first edition is not in hardback and yet there are some first edition collectors who will baulk at a paperback even when it is the first edition. For modern Australian authors, my own particular collecting interest, much recent material only appears in paperback. One of our finer novelists, Alex Miller, won a host of prizes for his third novel The Ancestor Game, including the Miles Franklin Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. The first edition is a paperback. Many of the first editions of Rodney Hall’s novels are paperbacks. There are countless other examples. For some collectors it seems that, because it is a paperback, it cannot be worth collecting. The paperbacks themselves are frequently very interesting in terms of their covers and art-work.

Many used-book dealers also, especially those selling in all genres, seem unaware that 1st editions of novels do appear in paperback. It is also not only a recent phenomenon for a first edition to be paperback. While we were in America we found a 1956 paperback of Morris West’s, I think, second novel Kundu. In it it is stated quite clearly that it was published in 1956 by Dell Publishing. The first Australian edition, a hardback, did not appear until 1957, yet it is consistently listed by Australian dealers as the first edition, even by those who view themselves as above the fray, so to speak. Morris West himself had apparently forgotten that Kundu appeared first in the USA, yet kindly confirmed it in writing when I asked him for clarification. Australian bookdealers are of course not entirely to blame for this ignorance. Many of our early librarians, collectors and bibliographers were Anglophiles. The libraries purchased books from UK library suppliers, as one firm in particular sewed up the Australian library market very early on and there was this “apron string” which still rears its head today. These were the editions recorded by the bibliographers, and the US imprints, which were in quite a few cases first editions were simply not noted. And just in case people think I am having a go at Australian dealers, it is interesting to note how many US bookdealers, even many who are members of antiquarian bookdealers associations etc. seem to think that any book published in America must be the first edition. It is quite extraordinary, unless of course one has lived in the States and discovered what a very parochial place it can be in many, not all, but many regions. One dealer in the States currently has Peter Carey’s novel The True History of the Kelly Gang on one of the Internet book sites and describes it as “a great Western”! I suppose he or she is pitching the book at American readers. Another dealer has a Christina Stead work listed as a book by “a great American novelist now living in London”.

Back to first editions, however. I tend to have a fairly radical and even heretical approach. The first edition to my mind is the author’s manuscript, the next is the proof and/or the advanced reading copy. The latter, i.e. the advanced reading copy, seems to have begun life in the States some ten years ago. The next edition is sometimes the limited edition signed by the author, then there is the first trade edition in any one of several countries. Sometimes the trade editions are identical in terms of content, sometimes they differ, as was the case with Carey’s Oscar & Lucinda. I am interested in them all and particularly interested in first trade editionsfrom different countries for those authors of appeal to me. My own collection therefore now concentrates on major Australian modern novelists and poets who are or were published in Australia, the US, the UK and Canada. The different editions are, I believe, very interesting. In many instances, the overseas editions are much more appealing in terms of production and presentation. Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang is a good example.

Proofs in particular, I believe, are very collectable. There is much greater interest in these in the States than in Australia. Sometimes they are quite uninspiring productions. On other occasions they are quite attractive and occasionally include the dust wrapper which will accompany the first trade printing. I have collected many proofs for my own collection and some are also in the shop.

Other items of interest.

There is much older material in the shop, including early editions of Henry Handel Richardson, Ada Cambridge, Praed, Thomes, Boothby, etc. all in excellent condition. I also have a substantial set of children’s works in fine bindings. Earlier, I made a brief mention about non-fiction. The shop does include some interesting and harder-to-find items. Some have sold and are appearing in other dealers’ catalogues. Others are still available or being added gradually to the shop.

Australian literature.

I would now like to make a few general comments about attitudes to Australian literature.

We were quite intrigued when in America about the interest in Australian literature. Rodney Hall, for example, seemed to be better known in that country than in his own. I think it is regrettable that our writers do not receive due recognition in this country. There are the literary prizes and the occasional piece in newspapers when one of our better-known writers receives an award, but that is hardly due recognition. Many of them struggle financially and work extremely hard undertaking research, writing, rewriting and rewriting. The successful ones, and I am not just talking about the Peter Careys and David Maloufs, are given varying degrees of publicity in this country, but there are many excellent Australian writers who are ignored in their native land. Many of them are recognised overseas and are still published first overseas. Some of our current crime writers such as Gabrielle Lord and Jennifer Rowe produce works far superior in style and plot to US blockbuster writers such as Sue Grafton and yet they are mostly ignored by Australian book-buyers. George Turner, a Victorian, whom I mentioned earlier, is probably one of the finest science fiction writers of the late twentieth century and has an international reputation, yet his works are virtually unobtainable in Australian bookshops. We are, of course, a young country, yet that is no excuse for what has happened.

I picked up a small pamphlet recently called Australiana in the Pattee Library at the Pennsylvania State University published in 1957. In a brief introduction to the Australian literature collection at that library it mentions in passing: “In recognition of the present maturity of Australian literature, the University of Sydney is now in the process of establishing a Chair of Australian Literature. This will be the first such professorship in Australia.” I have not verified whether this is accurate but I suspect it is [It is. Ed.], and it seems extraordinary that there was no such chair in an Australian university until almost the 1960s. We are of course our own worst enemies. We assume that overseas is better. As I told Kay Craddock when she asked me why I had not become naturalised (having come to Australia in the early 1960s): “I will when this country has a head-of-state who does not reside overseas.”

Recently Jane Sullivan, who writes a regular literary column in the Sunday Age, commented on how difficult it was to obtain copies of works by many Australian authors in bookshops. She mentioned about a dozen authors and some of their works. I sent her an email advising that almost all of the works she mentioned and many others were stocked in The Grisly Wife Bookshop and invited her to come and visit. She responded along the lines of “well-done” and referred to how I was unique because I stocked secondhand and new literature but that it was unlikely she would visit as she did not often venture to that side of the city.

While talking about Australian literature, I will briefly mention attitudes. My parents and their four children were born in England and the family migrated to Australia as “ten pound migrants” in 1960. Both parents went to excellent schools, and my father received an MA at Oxford, where he studied classics. He was asked to come to Australia to lecture in theology. His library is vast and includes many thousands of novels by leading UK and US writers. Both he and my mother have also been voracious readers. When I told them that I was opening a bookshop they were pleased for me. When I told them it was to be called “The Grisly Wife Bookshop” they were aghast; “What an awful name, how could you?” they exclaimed. I advised them that it was named after a novel by a respected Australian writer. My father commented that no decent Australian novel had been written apart from maybe by Patrick White. I changed the subject as my father, even though he has lived over half his life in Australia, is still English to the core and can become quite agitated about certain matters. He rang me a few days later and said he had changed his mind about the name. Apparently he had looked up Rodney Hall in a reference work and upon finding that Rodney was born in Birmingham, England, decided that he must be all right after all. Better still, I gave them a signed copy of The Grisly Wife for their recent wedding anniversary. Again he rang me a few days later and said it was a truly fine novel. He had also discovered that it was part of a trilogy and asked if I could give him the other two. “No,” I said, “but you can have a 10% discount if you buy them.” He did, but funnily enough he wanted hardback copies and not the paperback version.

Another story which revolves around attitudes to Australian literature and particularly “value” concerns someone who rang me recently. She started by saying that she had been looking for this Gerald Murnane novel for 10 years and even though she was sure I would not have it she would try anyway. “What’s the title?” I asked, knowing that I had them all and here was a sure sale. She told me and I went to the shelves. It was there of course and I told her so. She enquired about the price and I told that it was $44. She thought that this was ridiculous despite the fact it was a mint copy in dustwrapper. I reminded her that she had been looking for it unsuccessfully for 10 years, but she was not interested. I find it quite extraordinary that people will not think twice about spending $50 at a restaurant or $25 for a bottle of wine etc. yet baulk about spending similar amounts on a book, even though they will always have the book.

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