BOOKTOWNS WERE ONCE seen as the answer for the future of second hand and antiquarian bookshops, that is, by converting a number of shops in a rural town to attract both tourists and customers. Hay-on-Wye in Wales is perhaps the most famous example, but it perhaps now only reaches its 1960s and 1970s sales heights when its huge literary festival takes place each year. Other British booktowns, like Sedbergh in Cumbria, are disappointing, having far fewer bookshops than Canberra. Bowral was launched as a Booktown in 2000 but its reputation has been dented since the demise, for a variety of reasons, of some of its core secondhand and antiquarian bookshops.
Now Clunes in rural Victoria is stepping up to the plate — or rather the bookshelf — not only with seven dedicated bookshops specialising in secondhand and collectable books, but also exploding, in a bibliophilic sense, every May when dealers, authors and book collectors descend on the town for one weekend, when the organisers claim they assemble the largest collection of rare and secondhand books in one town in Australia.
Clunes is an historic gold town, 36 km north of Ballarat. It normally has a population of around 1,000 people, but this year’s fifth Clunes ‘Back to Booktown’ event (www.booktown.clunes.org) held over the weekend of 14-15 May, attracted around 15,000 people — 10,000 on Saturday and 5,000 on Sunday when Bob Hawke was the star attraction. The festival is normally on the first weekend in May, but the late Easter pushed it back two weeks when the weather was decidedly cooler for the hordes browsing the bookshops and the marquees placed strategically in the main street.
‘Back to Booktown’ started as a way to set Clunes on the path of rural renewal based on cultural tourism. Creative Clunes Director Dr Tess Brady says, ‘We set out to brand Clunes as a cultural destination but didn’t realise how successful it would be. Our town is building a future on books — books as valued objects, that people want to pick up and keep on their bookshelves, pass on to their family and friends and dip back into. Despite the seeming doom and gloom in the industry, we do see that quality printed books will continue long into the future.’
With accommodation and restaurants booked out in neighbouring towns, organisers say the event provided a four million dollar boost to the region. A major factor for Clunes, unlike Bowral, is that ‘the Clunes real estate is not expensive and it’s small enough for you to walk around’ says Brady. Clunes also hosted many other weekend activities such as traditional Punch and Judy shows, brass bands, local wine tastings, a Children’s Booktown, the Australia Fair Grand Concert Street Organ and a mini literary festival.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard had visited Clunes on the Friday to announce flood relief funds and to don a Booktown apron. At the literary festival Bob Hawke stood in for Blanche D’Alpuget who was sick. Hawke captivated the standing room only audience with lines such as ‘Question Time brings parliament and parliamentarians into contempt’ and he criticised the media for its criticism of Gillard’s dress: ‘geez, look how slovenly I was dressed at times, or Billy McMahon’.
Clunes has certainly hit ‘gold’ with the Booktown event, with booklovers fossicking through tens of thousands of collectable and secondhand books from 66 dealers who came from all over Australia. Most dealers kept prices between $5 and $35 which certainly encouraged sales. One local dealer said that his trade was up 15% from last year, but then no book on his stand was over $10. In 2010 he had brought rare and collectable items which had not sold so well.
The quality of material was high nonetheless on a number of stands, such as Kenneth Hince, Louella Kerr, Astrolabe and Bygone Books. When often poorly produced C format paperbacks currently retail for $32.95, then no wonder that the dust jacket protected hard back items, particularly books on the theatre and first editions, were selling like hot cakes. Local bookshops, such Miss Agatha Greene’s Quality Books and Clunes Booktown Bookshop also saw steady traffic.
The visiting dealers were located in Clunes’s historic buildings, such as the Town Hall and the Old Court House. Several businesses were taken over for the weekend like the local garage and motor testing station, which naturally housed books on motoring. Every subject interest seemed to be covered from sport to militaria, from cooking to children’s books. The Book Grocer marquee, part of Karl Slotte’s rapidly expanding high quality remainder firm, wooed many customers with its $10 uniform remainder book sale.
Empty shops had been cleaned by the impressive team of volunteers. Tess Brady said about a third of the town’s population helped prepare for the event. In the ‘last census we had the highest percentage of volunteers of any town in Victoria’. The one criticism of the event would be that more space is needed in 2012, if that were possible, as many small shops were so full of book fossickers that viewing, let alone browsing, was almost impossible by mid Saturday afternoon.
A new attraction was the dedicated Heritage train from Melbourne. Next year they hope to be able to get the train directly into the restored Clunes railway station itself when Clunes once again is bound to please.