Gould’s Book Arcade is a Sydney institution that started trading in 1988. It doesn’t look like much from the street, maybe a warehouse of sorts, there are no windows to look in just a big hole in the painted walls that gives way to an Aladdin’s Cave of books. With about 90,000 books over two levels and dozens of floor to ceiling shelves, it’s positively labyrinthine. This is probably the highest concentration of titles of any independent bookstore in Sydney- it certainly advertises as the largest second-hand bookshop in Australia! There are books on every conceivable topic, name the genre and it will be there. But it is chaos. It looks like something out of hoarders. A visitor might legitimately fear the whole place would collapse in around them if they dislodged the wrong book. Perhaps this is part of the thrill, extreme book-hunting…
You see, the shelves are so packed they are actually caving in under the weight. In the back some have crumbled away entirely so the books are heaped up beside them. Some stacks are completely inaccessible without some heavy-duty mining equipment to burrow through the boxes piled to the roof, filled with further books waiting for display. Many of the shelving units have scraps of paper taped to them, which attempt to denote the content beyond. Few are actually accurate, and should you make it to the right section by some miracle or coincidence it would be futile to expect the books to be organised, say according to genre, alphabet, publishing date or even size. There is in fact no perceptible organisation through most of the shop, traditional or otherwise. There are some areas that have recently been cleared and then you hit the jackpot- the fantasy section had just been done up when I was in yesterday. But this is haphazard and short lived given the momentous challenge a full tidy would encompass. Gould’s do offer an electronic browser to peruse their vast selection, although this isn’t much use beyond determining if the title or author you’re after is in fact present in the great cavern, from there begins a needle-in-a-haystack hunt.
The depth and breadth of the collection is truly extraordinary. There’s a huge gender studies section, albeit bare of anything beyond second wave feminism or contributions to contemporary masculinities debates. Well, there might have been, but a few of the shelves were actually 3 books deep and the books themselves seemed an integral part of the structure into which they were squeezed, so I contented myself with a nevertheless remarkable options on the surface. There’s also a great array of art books, obscure Sci-Fi and mainstream crime, cooking and design, some children’s stuff, the classic and some high fiction, there’s a corner of Romance novels and heaps of comics, but it’s all a tad dated.
Gould’s is in fact renowned most of all for its Australiana and to be sure there’s enough Australian history, culture, politics, social movements, art, nature and cooking to keep even the most nationalistic Aussie busy for a lifetime. Then there are a few shelves dedicated to travel, although most of the books that made the cut are no younger than 5, perhaps even 10 years old, not an ideal quality in a travel guide… In keeping with all this Gould’s also houses a vinyl collection and hundreds of CDs as well as the oddity of old magazines. I’m not talking vintage classics here (although surely some were) these were Cosmolitans from 2004 etc. Who, and this is not a rhetorical question, buys these?
The shop itself has something of the look of an atrium, with metal staircases that lead to better vantage points over the madness. It should be bright, there’s no shortage of actual lights, most being strip lights for that wonderful institutional glow, and yet it feels dim. The sheer size of the shop and its stock leads to extraordinary amount of dust. Perhaps the lights are in fact doing their job but fighting a losing battle against the smog-like cloud of dust that hovers throughout the shop. The book covers are coated with a thin grey film and many a novel has developed a cosy relationship with the local clans of daddy-long-legs. The dust, the cobwebs, the dirty floor and decrepit furniture must all be surmounted by the determined reader, and clearly there are some very resolute booklovers out there for the shop keeps its doors open from 10am to 10pm. What I wouldn’t do to have Ampersand open late. I’d happily settle for seven- after a day’s writing their 5.30 closing leaves me feeling I’ve been kicked out of bed by an uncouth lover. No, if you want late nights between covers you have to head down King Street to Gould’s, perhaps the only bookshop I’ve ever entered where I really don’t want to linger. As you make your way to the exit there’s a bit of a head rush as the air grows cleaner, and you gulp down the comparatively fresh smell of street and car fumes. On my last visit, having been way laid by their admittedly brilliant history section I spent a solid minute on the doorstep coughing away in the hopes of dislodging the dust-mites that seemed to have made their way down my windpipe.
I assure you I am only exaggerating a little. If you have an anxiety disorder or are in anyway predisposed to tidying, this isn’t the place for you. A visit to Gould’s is, if I’m truly honest, both thrilling and frustrating in equal measure, it is unique and the process of actually hunting down a book can be oddly exhilarating, but then again I lead a life of leisure before my new job starts and do actually have hours to dedicate to such precious time wasting. Next time I’ll bring a face mask.
- Location: 2.5 On the far end of King St, about 10-15mins walk from station, closer to Uni though
- Lure: 3 The sheer scale of thing is tempting
- Linger/lounge factor: 0
- Clear layout: 0
- Comprehensive collection: 2.5 Great, unless your looking for new releases
- Inspiring options: 3 if you’re willing to hunt…
- Friendly, knowledgeable staff: 2 knowledgeable for sure, but not all that approachable
- Good prices/good offers: 2.5
- Diversified: 2 There are the CDs, Vinyl and magazines I suppose.. and they rent out the space for film
- Unique: 4 I’ve never seen anything like it
Peacock overall rating: 2.5
Gould’s Book Arcade 32 King St, Newtown, 2042, NSW Phone: (02) 9519 8947