My first introduction to Ampersand was awkward and unwilling. The outdoor café was populated by retro chic hipsters and their mustachioed counterparts, it had a painted wall mural and just a handful of books and it was all a bit too cool for me. I’m ashamed to say I gave it little more than a glance from the pavement and decided it wasn’t right for me, all a little too obvious. But as I had decided to review Sydney’s bookshops for this blog and it’s impossible to form or find a list that doesn’t include Ampersand on Oxford Street,  I donned my lucky black boots and my shades and I gave it a second chance- not that the first had counted for much. I have to thank the stars for this blog because I couldn’t have been more wrong about the place; Ampersand is everything the Café bookstore should be, and more.

The entrance is dominated by the café and the smells of its delicious food- the breakfast menu offers all the classics, some vegie and some gluten free options, all between $9-$17, and an inviting “Morning-after Breakfast” that comes with a famous hangover-curing Berocca! My favourite has to be the Breakfast Bowl with warm apples and berries, rice pudding, granola, fresh fruit and yogurt,  $12.90 and worth every penny.

There are tables in a little courtyard out front that allow you to enjoy your feast in the sun, but these are usually rather crowded and the traffic on Oxford street is an intrusive soundtrack. Anyhow, that’s enough about food, onto the exciting stuff!

From the café you are offered the option of going upstairs to fiction, or downstairs to non-fiction. I’ve found the basement room, which gets very little traffic and reminds me of an old monkish library, fresh and quiet and somewhat solemn- is the best room to write in. There you’ll find an extensive history collection, sociology, journalism, self-help, child-raising and much more- I’ve found it mighty useful to just reach over to the women’s section when I’m fiddling with some feminist post. Apparently you can also hire the room for afternoon tea events.

Upstairs is an altogether more cheerful affair, bright an airy full of natter. Contemporary fiction takes up two rooms and they have ingeniously combined the Horror, Sci-fi, Fantasy and Historical books into one section. This whole wall made my mouth water, although many of the fantasy series were incomplete. For good measure there’s also an impressive biography collection and some great Art and Australia books.

With paired seats, shared tables, perches by windows and old beaten up armchairs there is something for everyone and a distinctly social feel about the whole place, certainly a fantastic place for a book club or discussion group. The underlying reason for the wonderment factor of Ampersand is the eye for detail. Everything is magnificently well thought out, for one, the menus are each encased in an edited book sleeve inserting Amersand Café into the cover of A Clockwork Orange, The City of Thieves and many more. In the alphabetised fiction section cardboard organisers with huge lettering mark out each section, and as they can easily be seen and moved to accommodate fluctuations in book numbers they keep the whole space organised and easy to negotiate. From the ceilings there are beautiful quirky chandeliers and each room houses a special display showcasing books with particularly fetching covers. There is none of the chaotic charm of Gertrude & Alice but rather a more staid, gentle atmosphere that courts both reading and conversation.

In On Writing, which I devoured yesterday, chortling to the bemused glances from fellow G&A patrons, King advises all would-be writers to create a safe haven for writing where they must go regularly to foster their muse. Though such spaces can be anything from a boiler cupboard to a motel room they must, he insists, have a door you can lock. His prolific writing career is surely a good sign of the wisdom of such advice, and yet without the luxury of such a space (unless I write from my bed, which is far from ideal as I always draft ideas with pen and paper) I have resorted to Ampersand’s basement, which is obviously open to all and sundry. Whenever I think I’m onto something with an idea (currently working on an discussion of the label SLUT) I feel pulled to Ampersand. I can use the place as a reference library -they have an interesting section on gender and sexuality I’ve started nibbling through- and find just the right degree of peace and distraction to allow for hours of work.  I wondered if I should let the world online know of this little heaven of mine. Maybe ‘they’ would come trampling into my basement and rob me of its dignity like a horde of teenagers alerted to a house party on Facebook. But I couldn’t honestly describe Ampersand without letting you in on this lovely space and, let’s face it, there just isn’t enough traffic on MsPeacock to warrant genuinely worry…

So the next time you are in Paddington I entreat you to grab a yummy coffee and a book from this not-so-little treasure of a place- and don’t let the cool crowd put you off…

  1. Location: 4 Oxford street is teeming with buses so it’s easy to get to and there are many other little bookshops to visit around here if you need a change of scene (which doesn’t actually happen all that often to me).
  2. Lure: 3 the open front and smell of coffee are inviting, as is the promise of 3 floors of books!
  3. Linger/lounge factorno matter what your mood or intent there’ll be a space for you.
  4. Clear layout4.5 everything signposted and clearly demarcated.
  5. Comprehensive collection: 4.5
  6. Inspiring options: 4
  7. Friendly, knowledgeable staff: 3 Quick to help and full of good ideas, but mostly leave you to your own devices.
  8. Good prices/good offers: 4– Most of their paperback are between $8-$14 and they do a great deal of a ‘book + take-away coffee’ for $10 (on a special selection of stuff that could include Tarzan or Rude World).
  9. Diversified: 4 The café on its own is great for the food, then they’ve marketed the space for events, have their own newsletter to keep regulars in the loop and they showcase local artists.
  10. Unique: 4 The size of the place is remarkable for a second-hand bookshop these days, and though the café-bookshop is not an original idea, these guys have perfected it.
 Peacock overall rating: 4.75

PS: For those whose interest is piqued by the photography, most are from blogger Juliet on The Juliet Report which has lots of funky photography… And if from anyone else I have linked back to the original posting- unfortunately I’ve lost the cable to my own camera so I can’t put up any of my own shots!

To stay up to date with events, Ampersand even has a blog.

4 thoughts on “AMPERSAND: The Curious Case of the Cafe Bookstore

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