Open the door to Archives Fine Books and you will enter a big world – there are books on everything, on bushrangers, costumes, navigation, there is literature, poetry, sheet music. Here, you can find everything you were or were not looking for. Welcome to Brisbane’s book wonderland.
Interview with Hamish Alcorn and Dawn Albinger, owners of Archives Fine Books.
Which three books of Brisbane would you recommend to a person visiting the city?
The poetry of Judith Wright (I especially love her bird poems) and her memoir Half A Lifetime, so named for focussing on the first half of her life. Wright was one of our most outstanding 20th century poets and although she was born in New South Wales she moved to Brisbane as a young woman and continued to live in South East Queensland for thirty years. She was unconventional, intellectually rigorous, an environmental activist and committed to indigenous rights. The Judith Wright Centre in Fortitude Valley was named after her and you will find lines of her poetry inscribed in its concrete walls.
David Malouf’s 12 Edmonstone St is a memoir by one of our better known novelists. Edmonstone Street still runs along the southern edge of Musgrave Park in West End, a traditional meeting place of the Turrbul people, and a popular site for multicultural events today.
Venero Armanno’s Firehead is also good for local feel. As well as featuring streets of Paddington, Toowong and New Farm it is flavoured by the political narrative of Joh Bjelke Peterson’s infamously corrupt Queensland government and police force. Armanno is a compelling writer and the novel manages to be mystery, romance, gangster and historical whilst also including a detailed recipe for Italian meatballs.
Please tell me a bit about the literary scene in your neighbourhood.
Sadly there are fewer and fewer bookstores in the Central Business District each year. However there are two great libraries on either side of the river and each September the Brisbane Writer’s Festival takes place at Southbank and is always well-attended. Folio is a great city bookstore for new books and Avid Reader in West End is fantastic for organising all sorts of readings and events with authors and book lovers. The Judith Wright Centre hosts the annual Queensland Poetry Festival.
What’s the story of the bookshop?
We are located on the ground floor of John Mills Himself, a heritage-listed building in the heart of the Brisbane. Printer John Mills built it in 1919 and US General MacArthur used the building during the Second World War to print pamphlets. In the 1980s the building was home to a couple of counter-culture artist-run collectives until Jewish Brisbane bibliophile Emmanuel Meschers moved in with the bookstore at the end of that decade. Since then the store has been cared for by a handful of unique personalities, each one contributing to its reputation as a Brisbane icon.
We bought the business in 2008 and are enjoying the singular challenge of ensuring that Archives Fine Books not only survives the e-book revolution, but thrives as Australia’s biggest and best second-hand bookstore. Our key features are our size and an ad-hoc assemblage of scarce, unusual, and collectible books. On our website we feature antiquarian and other treasures, adding new titles regularly. More recently we have been creating space in our back room with a view towards hosting intimate literary and live performance events.
What are the challenges nowadays in Australia to run a bookshop – and which ideas make Archives Fine Books unique and special?
The challenge is to survive of course. There are two aspects to this.
Firstly the book itself as a mode of disseminating and storing information has stiff competition. If people need information or want to read a story, there are lots of ways to do that. The trend toward smaller living spaces with less shelving exacerbates this.
In a way the market still left is the same market that Archives has always attracted. It is the people who love actual books as well as the content within them. So although custom dropped off, it was not as severe as that suffered by new bookshops.
The second difficulty the digital age introduced is best illustrated by the rapid closure of specialty shops, whose business model depended on a large geographical catchment of customers and, generally, premium prices. As people could order things online the model became untenable. So Brisbane had an excellent military bookshop, a boating bookshop, and a map shop, and these are all gone. Our advantage here is partly that we were never a specialty shop, but also that with our size we can act as a large variety of specialty shops, each with a small but committed market.
The second part of the question – about which ideas make the shop unique and special – is almost personal from our point of view, in that although there are ideas that maintain and guide us customers may not be aware or even relate to them. Archives is a temple to Logos, a universal bibliography of civilisation and its apparent commitment to write stuff down. Of course it can only be a representation; 99% of the books are in English for one thing. But it constantly changes and shifts, and is large enough to be effectively overwhelming. The truth is we don’t have “one million books” at any time, but over the years we have dealt with many millions of titles, on pretty much every subject possible. New ones and old ones never seen are constantly appearing. Working here is endlessly educational whilst a constant reminder of the ocean of what we don’t know.
Aside from our own philosophy, we are aware of many who use the shop as a sanctuary and develop much more than a merely transactional relationship with the space. In the centre of the city in particular, this is rare today.
Can you recommend a few of your favourite place near your bookshop?
John Mills Himself cafe and bar downstairs is a very funky off-the-beaten track place to rendezvous. They are very relaxed and friendly with a focus on local produce and sustainable practices. We often lunch at local Italian spot Pane e Vinos. They sell the best biscuits in the city made by their mum, Irene. The Pancake Manor always draws tourists and young people and like us is in a heritage listed building. The Botanical Gardens are close by and a great place to read a book on a sunny day which is almost every day in Brisbane.
Archives Fine Books
Open since 1985.
Owned by Hamish Alcorn since 2008. Current oldest book is a copy of Green pastoral poet Theocritus (in Latin) printed in 1554.
40 Charlotte Street, 4000 Brisbane, Australia.
Opening hours: Monday – Thursday 9 – 18, Friday 9 – 19, Saturday 9 – 17