Gertrude & Alice’s Café Bookstore is like a little slice of home and peace and chaos all at once. The overcrowded shelves, the books stacked on the floor and down the middle of the communal tables come together to create a booklover’s great escape. I first visited G&A on September 4th, just two days after landing in Sydney, and amidst all the unknowns in my life I felt I’d found a constant in the familiarity of the books and the family room feel that’s been so artfully crafted by the décor and the staff.
Just off Bondi Beach on Hall street, G&A is fantastically located and a visit can easily be combined with a trip to the beach and a tasty breakfast or lunch- the food is always fresh and flavoursome and not overly expensive; I recommend the Grilled Halloumi Salad at $15, it’s incredible. I takes two buses, two trains and roughly an hour and half from my place in North Sydney to travel to Bondi, and yet I do it at least once a week, to pop into G&A- the warm, fuzzy feeling of coming home hasn’t left me and there’s always room to perch.
Without a doubt the most tantalizing thing about G&A is the sense of potential one draws from its eclectic collection. It may be hard to hunt down a set text, but each shelf is choc-a-block with new discoveries. A galley lay out is split into four roughly distinct sections. The first houses the coffee shop and a display of would-be gifts (ideally to oneself) that include T-shirts with book covers, mugs, stationary and tarot cards (?) Squeezed into a corner opposite the till you’ll find housed the biographies- a full 8 shelves worth, some golf and cricket and a whole section devoted to the Arctic…hmm. Next up is the first half of the living room-esque middle of the shop with a beaten up old pink couch, an erotic lit section, some poetry and plays and the beginning of the fiction, alphabetised and yet the shelves are often two books deep and a little disorganised. From here there’s a long table and benches topped with writing books- amongst them in Stephen King’s On Writing which is hard to resist after a recent blog recommendation. And as if that weren’t enough you follow an extensive selection of crime books, thrillers, fantasy and kids texts through a narrow opening into the back room, with yet another book bedecked table and G&A’s collection of cookbooks, self-help, yoga, spiritual and art. The art books never seem to be arranged with much perceivable order but I’m sure some one sees the reasoning, and it does little to diminish the fact that there are real gems within. Opposite this is my favourite wall however: history and politics. They have everything from Egypt and the ancient Greeks to Chinese, American and Australian History, followed by shelves housing John Pilger and a collection entitled Jewish Studies that flows into Women, and The Middle East.
G&A can be said to be one of few that still embodies the Jo Goodwin philosophy that “A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone”- it covers religion and feminism, it has books from both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict etc. And yet this is done, it seems to me, without any deliberate purpose or intention to disturb, rather this is an honest, unselfconscious collection to be enjoyed by the great variety of characters that pass through the shop. In my long hours spent reading in their backroom I’ve witnessed how, despite being in a young and trendy, highly touristy neighbourhood of Sydney, G&A’s clientele covers a full range of generations, it includes families and singletons, tourists and locals, passers-by and regulars. People come to eat, meet or read or a combination of the three and they get to do that in a warm, welcoming environment. The staff are always friendly, though it could be said that they often seem a little more interested in their own conversations than keeping up with the busy pace of the café. If you need a recommendation or something set aside they’ll always do their best to accommodate so ask away!
The décor is a little shy of creative- the walls, where they can be seen above the shelves are red and yellow, one is bare brick, the table and shelves plain but sturdy wood. The opening display of bits and bobs is eye-catching, and there are a few display areas that promise specials (cooking at the moment), “guaranteed excellent” reads (Booker prize winners of the last few years) and sale items. But the books speak for themselves and they are almost leaping of the shelves at you or forcing your gaze upon their curled front covers at your feet- a careful step and a keen eye are crucial for full enjoyment of a shop that has fully embraced the use of the floor as the biggest shelf. It is also amongst these lowly piles that G&A makes some of its best offers- $2 History text books, $5 crime novels, and hovering at most around $10 are classics such as Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.
Wander in and let the stacks work their magic. Once you’ve found the right book, and there is something for everyone in this mix- really- you can settle yourself at one of the communal tables. From here munch away at a tasty treat, sip some tea (I found the coffee a little bitter) and eavesdrop on the fascinating characters around you. Once you’ve allowed the magic to wash over you and your belly’s nice and full settle into a good read without any worries you’ll be moved or hurried out. This is also a phones/internet free zone so leave your calls and your emails at the door. Gertrude & Alice is a place to settle in: they have food, drink, toilets and notebooks at the ready so there really isn’t ever a really good reason to leave…
There is something intangible yet charming about Gertrude & Alice that makes the place so hard to capture with words, but I hope my humble attempt at it does some justice to this great little bookstore. Check out the website as well for the fantastic history of the shop and its owners and the two inspiring women so central to the concept. So if you are headed for a day at beach do take a 2minute detour to this little literary haven, you won’t be disappointed!
- Location: 4 Just off Bondi beach the location is truly precious
- Lure: 4
- Linger/lounge factor: 5
- Clear layout: 2.5
- Comprehensive collection: 3.5
- Inspiring options: 4 despite the cram there’s old classics and popular novelties and everything in between.
- Friendly, knowledgeable staff: 3 I get a smile and nod of recognition from the tall but silent type who is always working, and seems each staff member has a recommendation of their own.
- Good prices/good offers: 4.5– most of the good stuff can be found for under $10, new Orange Penguin Book classic go for $9.95 and there’s many a paperback for $6…
- Diversified: 4 The food here, and the setting in which to eat it make the café a great place in and of itself, and there are moleskins and novelty cards and all sorts to add to that.
- Unique: 2.5 There’s a great ambiance but it’s not exactly revolutionary.
Peacock overall rating: 4.5