The last few bookshops I’ve reviewed share the cosy dimness and paper smell of an old library, I have, I admit, a personal penchant for this old-school environment. Ampersand does have a bright top floor, and G&A have outdoor benches, but light is not their dominant feature- it is at Ariel. Ariel Books in Paddington is bright and airy and has a general feel more akin to that of an art gallery. Glass provides two walls at the front of the shop and more sun pours in through another window at the back. In addition to this the bookshelves are all about 4 feet tall with as much space between them, so wherever you are you get a good view of the rest of the shop.
For those of us partial to little nooks and crannies Ariel feels quite alien, yet what it lacks in cosiness it does make up for in character. The walls are decorated with posters, paintings and sculptures that draw the eye up. I was particularly taken with a large cut out of a woman reading that was entirely made up of those multicoloured 100s&1000s that one uses to decorate cupcakes. The graphic art isn’t all to my taste but it does add to the overall artsy, original feel of the place. The books themselves all seem to be on sale individually, often face up on shelves that only go one deep. Unsurprisingly they have a great Art books collection as well as some snazzy fashion and design titles that would look great on any coffee table.
If you’ll allow me a brief tangent on the topic of coffee table books I would share the recent discovery that some of these adult picture books at times actually contain some rather snappy writing. Fashion photography hardcover Dames: Women with initiative and attitude by Eric Boman provides a good example of this. The book is full of shots of Fashion Icons, Entertainers and Society ladies, including Paloma Picasso, Donna Karan, Anna Wintour, Barbara Walters and Ivana Trump, and amusing little intros to each woman and her own type of power. The opening comments by Bob Colacello were also quite funny. The photos came together as refreshing portfolio of real women’s faces- their laughter lines, hips and bizarre fashion choices- entirely lacking in airbrushing, or over-exposed skin. The Independent had an interesting line up for their top ten which is worth a a perusal if that’s your thing.
But back to Ariel. The dominant display of art, fashion and design is matched by the stylishness of the place in general, with its vogue worthy layout, the wooden tables, colourful stools and minimalist exhibition of books: no stacks here! It’s all very aesthetically pleasing, and if you actually want a book-book there’s also a range of Australian writing, fiction, culture, biography and cooking, and some decent pointers in the staff reviewed collection of “our favourites”. There is breadth in the selection on sale, but not much depth, that’s to say I wouldn’t go here for something off the beaten track, but it does stock all the new releases, a decent number of the classics and they are all easy to grab -at 5ft3 I usually struggle with top shelves…
If you’re bringing kids along, this may also be the best place I’ve looked at so far, with room for little ones to whizz around without careering into anything, tripping over carpets or wiping snot on valuable limited editions. They have a whole section to themselves complete with kids table and chairs and even some toys- and on offer for these particular customers Ariel has a great collection of children’s classics- from the Grimm Brothers to The Grufallo.
The meeting of fashion-conscious and child-friendly somehow succeeds in making the store feel like good fun. And just to make sure you have at least one laugh while within they have some really funky gift ideas- Donkey Products’ Teebeutels caught me eye (see below). Then there are book themed week planners including wonderfully made Alice in Wonderland and Petit Prince ones with a material covers, and there are chocolates, calendars, cards and prints. If you’re looking for an easy, original gift there’s a fair bit to choose from and great paper to wrap it in, but it does come across a bit gimmicky.
I like Ariel, I do. But I’m not drawn to it, and that’s probably good because I can’t afford it- most paperbacks are in the $20-$30 range and that’s before you hit anything arty and the prices climb higher. If you want Art/Design books this place is ace however, and it has an even more creatively focused branch on the Rocks which although smaller takes photography books to a whole new level. I spent a fair amount of time in the Rocks shop’s tattoo section perusing the strokes of genius or stupidity some people have had permanently inked on themselves; Resisting the urge to embellish on my one miniature tattoo was much harder than resisting my compulsion to buy a book- despite the beautiful options the prices were even more prohibitive here.
On another aside, if you hit up the branch on the Rocks you simply must visit the Museum of Contemporary Art that’s across the road from it. It’s free and the collections are superbly curated- I fell in love with Australian artist Fiona Foley when I was last in. Plus on the other side it gives out onto the Opera House providing a great photo op over the water.
- Location: 4 On Oxford street, just up from Taylor Square
- Lure: 4 If you’re into light and bright, 1 if you’re looking for a living room library…
- Linger/lounge factor: 1 Despite the stools and couches it just doesn’t feel warm, but may be very different if in with kids.
- Clear layout: 2.5
- Comprehensive collection: 1.5 Unless you’re looking for art/design
- Inspiring options: 3
- Friendly, knowledgeable staff: 2 You are left to your own devices…
- Good prices/good offers: 1 they do have a sale section but even there you are looking at $15-25
- Diversified: 4 They’ve got cards and gifts and a pretty attractive niche.
- Unique: 2.5 I’m torn between giving them their dues as an artsy place and arguing they are more like waterstones with a bit of character..
Peacock overall rating: 2.2
PADDO BRANCH: 42 Oxford Street Paddington NSW 2021
THE ROCKS: 103 George Street The Rocks NSW 2000