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A life-long love affair is how many people describe their passion for books. If you have missed trains, trams, buses or ferries because you were captivated by a story; if visitors to your home say ‘wow, you could open a bookshop’; or if you can easily recite passages (if not pages) verbatim from your favourite titles and can’t remember a time when you didn’t read, then welcome comrade, you’re in my tribe.

In an age of computers, text messaging and digital TV, books still possess an incredible hold over many people. What is it about the old-fashioned printed word that compels us? What is it that lures people to leave more lucrative careers to work with their enduring passion? Is it the bindings or the content?

The aroma of old paper and leather or is it the story inside? Again and again, booksellers state that it’s not just their love of books but the people—colleagues, customers, authors and publishers—who make their choice a true vocation.

For second-hand bookshop proprietor Kreisha Ballantyne-Dickes, it’s easy to spot a book addict. ‘You can see it in their eyes’, she laughs. ‘I call it the “book look” and people either have it or they don’t’. Kreisha and her husband Adam own Desire Books, a friendly and funky treasure trove of ‘60s ‘ beat and rebel’ and 20th-century literature near Manly Beach in Sydney.

‘For a lot of people, books take them back to their childhood, to a very special place’, says Kreisha. ‘They recall how wonderful it was reading with their parents’. Adam nods in agreement. ‘Every couple of hundred volumes you get that one beautiful book—inside and out—that makes it all worthwhile’, he says. ‘Over the last two years we have tended to attract the kind of person who simply can’t walk past a bookshop’, says Kreisha. Before opening their shop, these bibliophiles lived Kreisha and Adam from Desire booksin the UK book mecca, Hay-On-Wye, and knew exactly the kinds of books they wanted to sell.

The common myth that booksellers get to loll around and read for a living, is firmly refuted by Tim Gott, the proprietor of Tasmania’s Davenport Books.

‘Never ever been able to do that’, he says. ‘Some days we are so rushed that reading the back cover before you shelve a new title is a bonus’, he says with a laugh. While Tim may have been attracted to the profession by his love of books, he reckons it’s the people that make bookselling so worthwhile. ‘I really love the variety of people you come into contact with through my bookshop. Like books, we get all kinds of customers.’ He feels that the combination of hundreds of thousands of new titles a year and the increasingly busy lives we lead, means that readers are relying on booksellers more than ever to assist them to choose a great title. Consequently, booksellers need to have excellent communication and people skills, not to mention a good memory.

However, there are others for whom books are non-essential. Reading is not only a non-essential aspect of life, it isn’t even on their radar. Their reading is confined to the newspaper and perhaps a magazine aligned to their interest. Like two countries divided by an uncommon language, these people are an enigma and I have yet to enjoy a close friendship with a non-reader.

It seems ironic that despite over 100,000 new titles being published in English each year, so few seem to capture the ability to describe the absolute delight that reading brings. Fortunately, some eloquent writers proudly wear their hearts on their sleeves and invite us into their libraries, their lives and often their hearts. In Helene Hanff’s classic love-letter to books and bookselling, 84 Charring Cross Road, her passion is charmingly transparent and addictive. Hanff effortlessly and articulately captures the passion that so many of us have for books and her own books are deservedly read and loved. Anne Fadiman’s erudite and excellent Ex Libris: Confessions of a common reader contains some wonderful essays on how books can shape our lives and how much richer we are for them.

‘The books that have the power to excite us by stimulating our imagination rather than just entertain, they are the books that become a part of our lives’, says Kathy Mossap, editor of Good Reading, an independent monthly magazine dedicated to reading, books and the people who love them.

Kathy feels that everyone’s list of life changing books is different and it’s interesting to hear of that impact a book can have on a person when it may invoke a very different response from you. ‘Great books reach you in a very personal way’, she says. ‘They touch an emotion and can produce strong feelings.’

In 2001, research commissioned by the Australia Council on Australian reading habits, book buying and borrowing, 72 per cent of people surveyed had read a book for pleasure the week before their interview, 69 per cent have over 200 books in their homes.

Another ABS survey stated that the average Australian reader reads for 70 minutes a day.

Like many converts, booksellers are happiest when either reading a great book or telling someone else about its virtues. Anthony Marshall, the proprietor of that Carlton institution Alice’s Bookshop concludes in the introduction to his delightful volume, Trafficking in Old Books: ‘My aim has not been to instruct but to entertain. And the people I wish to entertain are people like you, who have a passion for books and reading and who love to visit old bookshops and (possibly) old booksellers’.

As Hanff would say, ‘Hurrah comrade!’ 

Alison Aprhys is a freelance writer and photojournalist who writes for magazines in Australia and the US.



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