Whenever I ask people what they think I should do when I grow up (never!), they inevitably suggest running a bookshop. Whether they see me as a Bernard Black style nutbar, that I can’t say, however let me I tell you, my stoke levels would be pretty high if I did leave it all behind to sell paperbacks and hardcovers to local book lovers. I guess that’s why I have a special place in my heart for independent bookstores and the people that run them, and even though part of me is insanely jealous of these folks, I also know it must be super hard work at times.
The Grub Street bookshop, located in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy (one of Melbourne’s favourite inner northern suburbs) is one of those cosy local bookstores that you instantly fall in love with. Shelves packed high with second hand books, and the delicious smell of well-worn paper and ink in the air. You could go hog-wild in there, easily blowing your entire fortnight’s pay on wonderful reads in about 10 minutes, and I have to do everything I can to show some restraint each time my boots cross the threshold.
On my early shelf-wanderings I meet Liam, one of Grub Street’s proprietors. As I approach the counter, I spy him pricing new stock, nearly hidden as he is behind a wall of new paperback acquisitions. Liam kindly answers my questions, and rings up my purchases, while outside the winters night moves in. The dirty yellow of the street lights casts a gentle warming glow over the shop interior, making it look all the more inviting. For a moment I don’t want to leave, and I envy Liam. It’s at that moment I decide it’s time to find out more about what everyone seems to think would be my dream job.
I’ve been visiting Brunswick Street in Fitzroy for the past 26 years, and over that time I’ve seen it change from a wild, slightly dangerous, gritty, grimy strip of asphalt that no one wanted to hang out on – aside from the punks, hippies, artists and musicians of course – to a street more known for its gentrified brunch culture than anything else. And as much as I understand that things have to change, I still often lament the loss of that once exciting beast, a creature now tamed and beaten by soaring rents, sky high house prices and noise curfews. Liam agrees. “Gentrification has turned Fitzroy into a shell of its former self, and most of the interesting parts of it have been commodified. The one truly great thing left in Fitzroy is the wonderful poet, Pi O, and his encyclopedic knowledge of the area. He should be considered among Australia's elite writers.”
Liam himself could almost be described as a holdover from those wonderful if not headier days, when you could survive on free Uni beer and Aus-study, and there was a certain freedom in not knowing what path you should follow. “I'm a former zygote and current gadabout,” Liam explains, “I guess I'm just an example of that current generation who gigs more than has a career, which is probably partially choices and partially circumstances. Maybe if I just get a third degree... I suppose this should worry me about my future, but luckily I probably don't have one.”
Grub Street itself has been running for around 40 years, with Liam and his partners in print taking over the reins when it came up for sale a few years ago. “Regan and I met back during our Uni days, and always had vague plans to one day run a business together. And John, the indispensable third part of the Grub Street equation, used to own another (now closed) second-hand bookshop - Melbourne's much-missed, former-best bookshop, Basilisk,” Liam explains, “[Grub Street] used to be where Bar Open is, and above their door the glass plate still reads 'Grub Street Bookshop', but it’s been in its current location for close to 20 years now. When I pulled up the carpet a few years ago I found some fossils. Regan and I both worked for the former owners for maybe 5ish years each, so when it came up for sale, it just seemed like a natural choice.
With a wonderfully eclectic range of books on offer from the usual, classic suspects to a pretty neat military collection at the back of the shop, I ask Liam how they come by their stock. “It's a combination of things,’ he says, “it's people coming in and trading over the counter, but it's also things like doing house calls for people (often people who are downsizing, sometimes deceased estates). Sometimes it's auctions, and often it's just hunting in the wild.”
Given the huge number of printed gems I’ve found hard to leave behind on the shelves at Grub Street, I also imagine that it would be a daily hazard of the job not to walk out the door, arms filled with dozens of wonderful books. “Oh god, yeah,” admits Liam, “I would be called 'obsessive' if I didn't own a shop. In fact, I'm called that anyway. I seem to be building a large fort of some kind at home with my own ‘To Be Read’ pile, much to the chagrin of my eternally patient partner.”
So what sort of books excite the Grub Street crew, and what are their best sellers? “The thing that keeps the lights on and a gun out of my mouth is fiction sales. Mainly modern (1950s +) stuff. In terms of the stuff that excites us, we all kind of have different genres we love - John is the person in Melbourne you want to talk to about the esoteric or occult, and I won't shut up about comics regardless of the lack of interest a customer displays. We're always thrilled to get good theory and philosophy through. We're somewhat known for having a pretty excellent selection of theory, although it's a hard area to keep well-stocked.”
Aside from the usual fantastic paperbacks, you’ll also find stacks of local ‘zines for sale, and my personal favourite, the ‘mystery books’ – wrapped in brown paper so you can’t see the cover and $10 each, the only hint at what lies beneath the wrapper is a description written by the Grub Street team. “One of my friend's suggested something like it to me, and also Regan coincidentally had a similar idea,” says Liam, “and it just seems like a good way of both offering suggestions to people, as well as giving people who are overwhelmed with choice an easy option. Writing the descriptions can be a lot of fun - but also a real pain in the arse. They tend to sell really well, which is a blessing and a curse, as we run out of inspiration.
I feel like a bit of a jerk asking this next question, aside from the fact that it’s a bit too interview stock standard, I also secretly know it’s nigh on impossible to answer haha! But I have to ask anyway. Who’s Liam’s favourite author? “There's probably a bunch of writers I could list... Jack Ketchum, Raymond Carver, Kurt Vonnegut, Laura Elizabeth Woollett, Joe Lansdale, Megan Abbott, Georges Bataille, Garth Ennis... I guess I like stuff that isn't sentimental, and writing that is lean. I think a lot of what I like is writing that feels like it has some sort of authenticity to it, whether that's emotional authenticity, or just an honesty to it. And I find things that are over-written, or romantic to be dishonest, I suppose.”
As far as books go, Liam is more readily committable. “I could again list so many things here, but I'll say Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg. The fact that Thornburg isn't a household name - not to mention the destitute state that he died in - are a real tragedy. The guy had this absolute masterpiece, as well as half-a-dozen stone-cold classics under his belt, and he seems like a bit of an afterthought. Cutter and Bone has some of the most beautifully constructed prose I've ever read. It's a furious rebuke to the Vietnam war, and seems constantly on the verge of giving in to some sort of cosmic nihilism. Gorgeous stuff.”
Liam also writes himself, though he confesses he doesn’t spend as much time on this as he should. “Yes … it's something I should dedicate more time to. I've written a few unpublished novellas, and have a bunch of short stories floating around in various anthologies. The people who tolerate it charitably refer to it as ‘disgusting’.”
I could empathise, having written some truly awful poetry in my time, but I’m pretty sure Liam is just being humble.
When not working …. “What is this "not working" you speak of?” Liam asks smiling, and of course he’s right. Caught up in the idyllic dream for a moment I temporarily forget running your own business is damn hard sometimes, not matter how much you love what you do. “No, really,” Liam continues, “I'll be bouncing around my collection of part-time gigs. I run a bunch of things regularly - film nights, trivia nights and reading events that I host at different bars and venues around Melbourne. Or, if I'm lucky, drinking heavily while reading a book and hanging out with my dog.”
Famous last words? “I'll just steal George Engels' for mine: ‘Hurrah for anarchy! This is the happiest moment of my life!’.”
All Photos by Josh Feggans, www.joshuafeggans.com except that of Liam, which he provided.