In praise of fiction

By Rhonda Dredge

The Paperback bookshop at the top of Bourke St has been going 50 years and it celebrated last month with a bit of fiction.

Christos Tsiolkas read a scene from his latest manuscript about a woman with a bag over her head 2000 years ago.

He invited the assembled readers to enter a fantasy world that he has been creating over the past four years. 

Each generation rewrites history and Tsiolkas’s imagination was honed locally on the streets of the CBD where he and his family went looking for entertainment. 

“My first memory of the place was as a little boy. We lived in Richmond and walked into the city. My parents could go and have a drink at the Southern Cross and they let us kids wander,” he told birthday guests.

“I remember the first time I entered. My first novel was Russian, Novel with Cocaine. There was also the music section. It was my nourishment.”

In the early days, the bookshop specialised in imports, particularly American paperbacks which were difficult to get here. The owners Pippa Grey and her daughter Gail travelled to the US and brought back supplies. 

Portnoy’s Complaint, which was banned here, was available in a brown paper wrap, said Rosie Morton, who bought the store 23 years ago.

“The book was at the centre of a long-running court case but if you came here and went to the back counter … there’s still writing on the window that says American books.”

The bookshop has since become an institution, a place that attracts riff raff and city slickers, where you can bounce around ideas, disagree with staff, criticise their choices but also be matched with new authors.

“In the big city, this is a small place but with a sharing of ideas and discovery,” said Rosie. “The language of books is about inner lives and how they meet the larger world.”

You get the sense that while other cities have moved on and become dominated by world politics, a little modesty and serendipity still prospers at the Paperback. 

When readers got together for the birthday party the mood was convivial as they tried to outdo each other with their knowledge of books. Those huddled together between fiction and crime with glasses of cheap red in their hands became boastful.

One reader plucked a book from general fiction and declared it a must read. It was one of those clever books, set in Paris, with 155 chapters in a mysterious order. 

Another responded with an obvious choice, an Agatha Christie from the murder mystery shelves which he vowed to read over Easter. 

The girlfriend of one of the sales staff broke a glass and attention was focused for a while on the ruby-red, threadbare carpet. 

Paperbacks were revered in their day because they were so much cheaper than hardbacks which could cost up to a week’s wages and became associated with pomp and old-world values.

Paperbacks brought fiction to the population at large. Bill Morton who currently spends most of his days in the shop said there were several boxes of books he had not yet unpacked owing to the festivities.

“We live in a bit of a bubble here,” he conceded. Some books that do well overseas still don’t make it to Melbourne. Customers order books in and they, in turn, become part of the stock. 

“David was on a Cortazar binge,” he said, naming the reader who recommended Hopscotch, the book that emerged as if by magic from the fiction section at the back of the Paperback during their birthday celebrations.

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