Rachel Chopping on why you should love your local bookshop | HerCanberra

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Rachel Chopping on why you should love your local bookshop

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When you hop on the Canberra light rail, an enthusiastic voice overhead greets passengers to remind us of the next stop.

I never gave this a second thought until I moved away from my childhood home to Melbourne this year. When I catch a train in Melbourne, the distant voice overhead greets me not as a passenger, but a customer. I have always disliked this. Not the reminder of the destination—that’s invaluable, no matter how many times I take the same train—but being referred to as a customer on public transport. Passenger, I say to my sister. I’m not a customer, I’m a passengerI am being transported from one place to another. 

When I’m using public transport, I am usually heading to my job at an independent bookshop. Melbourne has no shortage of bookshops, writing workshops or literary landmarks. They don’t call it Australia’s City of Literature for nothing. I’ve found work in a new bookshop with new co-workers in a city with reading habits new to me.

Yet when I return home to Canberra for a weekend visit, after begrudgingly hugging my long-suffering parents, I am always excited to visit my former place of work, a different independent bookshop. I greet old colleagues, ask if they’ve gotten around to reading this or that yet, whether they saw that literary scandal on Twitter, or how well a particular title is selling. On average, Canberrans, unlike Melbournians, are huge sci-fi, fantasy, and crime fiction readers. The tastes of my new neighbourhood tend to slow-paced contemporary Australian fiction. A good bookseller is of course across both genres, but sometimes I find myself walking to an old Canberra staff pick, only to find it not on the shelf, or not at all what this particular customer has asked for. Old habits die hard.

If I am a passenger on the Canberra light rail, being transported from one place to another, I am also a passenger in an independent bookshop. Rather than paying the $5.20 adult fare, I pay $32.99 for a new release paperback and get taken to another world. The store itself is the same. Get a whiff of that! customers like to say when they come in. ‘You’d die for the smell,’ writes poet Patience Agbabi. It smells great in here. I can only take their word for it. Like many scents, after you spend enough time around them, you stop to notice it. I was always a little bit sad when I instinctually sniffed the air around me and found I could smell nothing but my lunch waiting for me in the back room. On my return to Canberra, however, as soon as I re-enter that bookshop, I am hit again with the smell of paper and glue, now made obvious by my absence. The smell is a mode of transport; it signals a shift from the street or mall, into a threshold of books.

Jeff Towns, a bookseller in the UK was asked about the biggest surprise when running a bookstore. He replied ‘the constant synchronicity that seems to occur in the book world. The amount of times I’m sat reading a book and then someone comes in and asks for that very book—it’s spooky.’ I have had many mirror experiences. Sometimes a co-worker and I are raving privately about a new release, exchanging gleeful glances when a customer brings it up to purchase. Sometimes we are raving on a less positive note, decrying the state of the literary industry over the popularity of a particularly overhyped title and we must swiftly shut our mouths when that very title is brought to the counter to be scanned by the strangely silent booksellers.

But bookshops are, at the end of the day, retailers. People go in, select a product, hand over some legal tender, and then leave. When I put a book on hold, I write a note saying customer to return in an hour. Yet when you make your purchase, unlike a commercial retailer such as Amazon, Big W or David Jones, your money goes straight back into the industry that made that book: writers, publishers, bookshops. More of this means more books, and more books are better for everyone. This has been proven by people with more expertise and money than me: the Australia Reads Campaign to name but one example.

One day, in the distant golden future, where public transport is free, I hope the kind voice on the overhead speaker welcomes passengers rather than customers and genuinely means it. My home will likely change over the course of my life— as will my friends and family, my job title, my state of health, and my opinions. I think my love for reading and writing are likely to remain, as are the human love for books and the places where we find them.

Rachel Chopping is a bookseller and works at the Australian Booksellers Association. Drop into your local bookshop for Love Your Bookshop Day this Saturday 8 October.

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