As my sister and I entered the dim interior of the six-storey art nouveau Curtin House, the bustle of Melbourne’s busiest thoroughfare behind us was instantly muffed.
We mounted the stairs, our eyes flitting from one to another of the anarchic posters plastered to the wall. We passed uninviting closed doors that hid behind them nocturnal venues, restaurants and clubs that thumped all night and were now put to rest for the day.
On the third floor, as equally quiet as the others, we walked down a short corridor and found ourselves in a bright, open room lined with bookshelves. Across the top of one shelf in bright red Art Deco font was a string of letters spelling “Metropolis”. We’d found our second bookstore for the day.
August is national book month. The commemoration works well in a city that, at that time, is still shrouded in wintry mist and mystery. Even better is to celebrate books in a city honoured with the second UNESCO City of Literature mantle.
This year, August 9 observes National Book Day, traditionally celebrated in the States but (as always) enthusiastically adopted in this far-away, long-forgotten antipodean country.
Plus August sees venues across Melbourne readying for the city’s annual Melbourne Writer’s Festival, with authors and readers alike flocking in from around the world.
Want some more awesome facts?
- A third of all Australian bookstores are in the state of Victoria, with 41% of all national booksellers based in its capital, Melbourne. That means 43% of all book sales in Australia are generated here. I knew there was a good reason I love this city.
- Melbourne is home to some of Australia’s best writers, include Marcus Clarke, Peter Carey, Helen Garner, Christos Tsiolkas, and Nam Le – among plenty others.
- Almost a third of all Aussie writers reside in Melbourne, with another 97,600 people citing writing as a hobby (including yours truly).
- Melbourne’s State Library of Victoria was the first major cultural institution to be built in the city after its founding in 1854. Looks to me like they had their priorities right. It now receives over 1.5 million visitors every year.
But enough of that. That’s not what you’re reading this article for, is it?
In honour of this festival, I did my own little bookshop hunt around Melbourne (the things I do for my readers) in search of the city’s best independent bookstores.
I enlisted the help of ARoamerTherapy’s Facebook fans to give me their own Best Bookshop criteria to help narrow the list to the following five shops. Common consensus seemed to be that a wonderful bookshop should have:
- An amazing selection across many genres
- Reasonable prices
- Interesting or unusual décor
- Quirky and rare books (secondhand and new)
On those grounds, here are my top five Best Bookshops in Melbourne.
1. Reader’s Feast
Address: 162 Collins Street Melbourne
Maybe it was early morning enthusiasm that keeps the Reader’s Feast in my top five selection, but its atmosphere and elegance resonated long after we’d left the store.
Entering Reader’s Feast elicited one of those “Wow” moments that can be rare in your own city. It should have been a telltale sign that its location on the Parisian-esque Collins Street would influence its design and decor. But we were still unprepared for the sweeping velvet-carpeted double staircase leading to its glamorous glass entry.
NB: all entryways into bookstores should be lined with red velvet carpet.
Classical music welcomed us inside – otherwise, a reverential silence reigned. Perfect.
As always, I beelined to the Classics & Literature section and delighted in its range of unusual book titles I’d never heard of from authors I adored. And right next to my cherished section were antiquated leather chairs that seemed to come straight out of Mr Darcy’s library. Perfection completed.
But if Reader’s Feast is too mainstream for your liking, you can always pop into the kooky, pokey Kay Craddock Antiquarian Booksellers situated right beside Reader’s Feast. Though it was sadly closed on the Sunday we were there, this little gem in a Gothic building looked enticing to explore at a later date.
2. Robinson’s Bookshop
Perhaps I’m biased. OK, there’s no “perhaps” to it. When it comes to Robinson’s Bookshop, I am most certainly biased.
This little bookshop has its roots in my (now) hometown of Frankston. There naysayers, Frankston does have a gem or two. I’ve been visiting it for birthdays and Christmases ever since I moved into the area.
But it does have the credentials to hold its own: it’s the oldest general independent bookshop in Victoria. And anyway, who can argue with this delightful façade:
Robinson’s Bookshop is moving up in the world, and this treasure can be found in Melbourne’s newest and plushest shopping hub, The Emporium. (Fine, the location isn’t particularly inspiring, but if you’re in doubt of its worthiness in the Top 5 list, I beseech you to look once more at the picture above. Not won over? How about the interior):
Dark timber graces the floorboards and the shelves, which are lined with classics, modern Lit, recipe books; hell, there’s even a Comic Book section.
And to complete the picture, there’s a ladder. In the words of my sister:
“It’s a dedicated bookshop because a ladder means floor-to-ceiling books.”
In my experience with Robinson’s, you can order the most obscure of titles and they’ll search the world over for it. Plus their latest “Blind Date” series of lucky dip books is such a novel idea (excuse the pun).
3. Embiggen Books
Address: 197-203 Little Lonsdale Street.
It is opposite the aforementioned State Library. Need I say more? Yes? It’s got a ladder. There.
Embiggen Books is filled with bizarre regalia to complement their book displays. Exhibit A:
They’re kooky and unassuming, but still deferential towards those bound paper pages. You have to be when you’re that close to the State Library. It’s small but cosy and there are sections to entertain aficionados of just about anything.
4. Hill of Content Bookshop
Address: 86 Bourke Street
Moving away from the city centre, my sister and I walked the short distance up Bourke Street, towards one of my favourite streets in Melbourne: Spring Street. Just before hitting that regal and presidential strip, we found Hill of Content. And we discovered the reason behind its nomenclature: bliss.
There were two floors. I love two floors in a bookshop. It keeps you quivering with anticipation and trying to exercise restraint by thoroughly familiarising yourself with ground-floor content before ascending.
The anticipation was deserved. The second floor seemed to have an endless classic range showing a respectable effort to find the most unheard-of titles by well known authors. Try this one: Hunted Down: the Detective Stories of Charles Dickens. Say what? That one’s going on the wishlist.
What made this perfection complete? As I browsed, I heard from outside the clip clop of horse hooves from passing tourist carriage rides. And it was as if I had been transported to Dickens’s world.
5. The Paperback Bookshop
Address: 60 Bourke Street.
Hill of Content and the Paperback Bookshop are so close together they’re practically nudging each other for space. That may be an exaggeration. But they’re close.
The shop is so petite and well-stocked there was barely room to breathe, let alone provide a small reading nook. But who can mark a bookshop down for having too many books?
I let it slide.
You know those teetering piles of books that fill you with envy in our most beloved fictional bookshop, Flourish and Blotts? I found them. Here.
The Paperback is filled with brand new books on bookshelves so rudimentary you’ll think they’re second hand. They’re not. And they’re going at brand-new prices too (read, not-second hand). It was a minor let down, but this shop was just too cute to deny a Top 5 spot. One more look…
Melbourne is replete with hidden bookshops, so to narrow the list to five was hard work and I’ve probably displeased more than a few of you by leaving out your favourite. Where do you go to buy books in Melbourne? Write your top picks in the Comments section below or visit my Facebook page for ongoing discussions.
What Else to See in Melbourne?
My home city is so packed full of cultural gems, you could live here your life and still find special treats to entertain you. Here’s what else to do on a trip here:
- Check out a revered AFL game
- Make sure you’re in town for White Night Melbourne
- Treat yourself to the novelty of a summery Christmas Down Under
- Learn a bit of ghostly history with a classic old Melbourne ghost tour