In my innocence I imagined second hand bookshops the world over to be quite similar. After all I have sold books to a great variety of foreign dealers over the years, and we all speak roughly the same sort of language. Over the past few years I have made a several trips to Canada, the U S A and Australia and have been fascinated to observe the differences, as well as the familiarities.
My mother’s grandfather arrived in Western Australia in 1830 at the founding of the Colony but I was born to an English father and I did not visit until after she died in 2005. All through my life Australia was present – my father-in-law to be was very taken aback to discover he might be welcoming someone on the wrong side for the Ashes. A bit of teasing on my part, as I was not a follower of sport. We had regular visits from a range of cousins and family friends, who seemed much the same as us.
I was brought up on Australian nursery songs, childrens’ books and magazines from the school of the air. I took an interest and passed some of the favourites on to my children. I knew about the wild flowers and the animals. I had the Australian abiding fear of snakes. We had numerous water colours of the bush on the walls at home and I understood most of the Australian slang, having met much of it at home.
Arriving in Perth I was surprised at how familiar the landscape felt. Perth is reckoned to be the most remote city in the world, being 1,000 miles from its nearest neighbour. In area terms it is by far the largest state in Australia but much of it is desert and the majority of the population are concentrated in Perth and the south west.
Most people live in sprawling suburban areas made familiar by ‘Neighbours’. Life is surprisingly similar and familiar, especially if you have more cousins than you can count, most of whom have done the regulation visit to Europe at some point in their youth.
It is only when you travel in the countryside, ‘the bush’ that you begin to understand the enormity of the task, and the bravery and foolhardiness equal measure of the early settlers. An interest in my family history and wanting to offset some of travel costs naturally led me to investigate the second hand trade in Western Australia – which is different to the Eastern states.
Through my family connections I have seen some truly wonderful libraries, principly majoring on Australiana. Over the years I have sold books quite well in Western Australia. Before setting out I did an internet search for bookshops and found it very hard to find many. Here I mean serious bookshops, not remainder merchants or the ubiquitous book exchange.
As far as I can understand there are only two proper bookshops left if WA, with perhaps a third in Freemantle that I didn’t manage to visit. This feels like a worryingly small number for a such a large geographical area, but hey! Its lightly populated and most people are doing outdoors sort of things.
Robert Muir’s Bookshop in Nedlands near the University is a lovely shop in a typical late 19 century Australian suburban house. It resembled the sort of shop, once quite common but now only found in a few provincial towns in England, or Wigtown in Scotland.
My visit revealed my hither to parochial attitude to books in English. I knew of course that many books are published in America, Canada and Australia as well as other English speaking parts of the world. American first editions being the bane of English modern first dealers, because of the differing and complicated conventions their publishers use. I knew that American literature catalogues were often a bit boring because of the unfamiliar authors whose works just did not cross the pond effectively. As similarly the American trade would hoover up many British authors and look with disdain on others who didn’t travel.
All that did not prepare me for walking through rooms and rooms of books none of whose authors were remotely familiar. I have now repeated this experience in other parts of Australia, Canada and the United States. It still comes as a shock, but is in direct contrast to the bookshops at the airports in these countries which are now almost interchangeable in their offerings.
This wealth of publications more than anything else gave me the sense of just how long these countries have been building their own separate identities and literary histories, thus making the familiarities a bit deceiving, particularly in Australia and Canada. The United States experience of difference is more understandable because its inhabitants come from a much wider European and Central American pool. So often in Australia and Canada you find people have one or more British parents or grandparents.
Technically I am a fourth generation Australian, a fact brought home to me on this visit. When checking out the bookshops before leaving I had noticed an Australiana rarity being advertised on the side bar of the website. ‘My Dusky Friends’ by Ethel Hassell. The title was a bit off putting but the name was familiar and I checked the family tree – the same name as a Great Aunt of mine, from whom I had inherited a minute share in some property via an Aunt. I checked the dates and my Great Aunt and the author had to be one and the same. Not withstanding the title I emailed to order the book and pick it up in Perth.
Manuscript lodged in the Mitchell Library, Sydney 1910, used by anthropologists but not published in this form until 1975
Thus I made myself known to Mrs Muir at Robert Muir’s. She inquired my Mother’s name and on the strength of her family name, another cousin or two, we were adopted as de facto members of Perth society. So much so that when I enquired what bus we needed to catch to return home she swept us off and drove us home.
‘My Dusky Friends’ turned out to be an account of Ethel’s relationship with the local aborigines and observations on their customs during the first few years of her marriage. At the age of 21 in 1878 she went to live on a sheep station four days ride from Albany in far South, the only white woman for a hundred miles or more. It was a profitable enterprise for many years but the homestead was very crude and life must been extremely challenging for a young middle class Victorian girl.
Ethel Hassell, nee Clifton
Her descriptions might be judged as patronising today but they are sensitive and thoroughly sympathetic, whilst recognising the realities of life for a stone age people whose whole way of living was adapted to survival in the harshest of environments. Her description of this tribe is almost unique because it records life before it was changed for ever by the coming of the white man.
Great Aunt Ethel had four children while at Jarramungup, and took great advantage of the opportunity while living there to study the wild life and plant life. She assumed that any plants the aborgines could eat would be suitable to vary their tedious diet and experimented with mixed success. After eight years the family moved back to Albany where she went on to have ten children in all, the majority of whom survived to adulthood.
Jarramungup – in 1965, originally it had a thatched roof
Albany has an incredible deepwater harbour and was the main entry to the colony in the gold rush years but had been sidelined by developments further north by Aunt Ethel’s death in 1933. It lives on in its very beautiful location living mostly on tourists. Not a paradise for books though, with one book exchange to its name.
Which brings me full circle to the books. I managed to buy this one and several other useful pieces of Australiana but the pickings were fairly thin. I knew the books and the libraries existed because I had gazed enviously at those of various cousins and friends. They all said they picked them up in local sales. Mrs Muir finally explained that much to her irritation many of the most sort after books simply to not pass through her hands. It is the custom for the University to hold bi-annual fund raising sales of donated books……and this is where most the books go, and how they change hands.
I understand that this is unique to Western Australia, both Sydney and Melbourne have a more familiar approach to bookselling with shops (albeit often in basements) and a round of bookfairs. The number of shops is also reducing, as with elsewhere because of the internet. New books are much more expensive than in the UK and I imagine this is accounts for the ‘book exchange’, common in Australia but rarely found here.
My opportunities for further adventures in the Australian book trade are likely to limited in the near future partly because of the state of the pound and partly the need for the cash to go on visits to Los Angeles where my son and family now live.
architecture, art and photography.