Welcome to another Oxford Street book adventure. Better late than never, I present Berkelouw Paddington.
Berkelouw announces itself confidently. BOOKS in large letters, it’s on a huge street sign, and in case you still missed it, three floors of glass windows are as subtle as a red light in touting the wares within. Once inside it’s bright and busy and crammed. Almost cramped, but not quite. Occupying their predictable spot at the entrance are the prize-winners (read Booker) and all the new releases and recent arrivals. A few unusual additions are usually hidden amongst them, so its always worth a dig. Past the front desk -which boasts an impressive display of humorous cards and books, there lie the rows of fiction, history, biography, pop-science, self-help, fantasy etc etc. Peppered amongst these are recommendations and ‘sound bite’ reviews. Some are brilliant and insightful, though most repeat the sycophants off the back sleeve. A real shame given how engaging and helpful the staff always are. My advice? Just ask one of them, they really know their stuff!
Ladders and tables bedecked with the picks of the week invite you further in- recently Art took centre stage, but today it was cooking. Opposite the counter there’s a Wall of greeting cards, including the brilliantly witty Able and Game range. Along from here, another wall of shelves houses all sorts of literary themed knickknacks and notebooks. There are chairs and stools to retire to- perches for perusal. Somewhere at the base of the stairs you’ll usually find a crate of sale books. These are frequently uninspiring, but a gem or two often emerge with persistence. Upstairs is where the fun really begins, because this is the home of second hand heaven.The spiral stairs open onto a wooden-floored library. Along the wall ahead are the coffee table books, art, fashion, design. The whole display is artsy, covering art history to architecture. On the far wall there are the limited editions and antiques, a stunning display worth a look in and of itself. These books are works of art, and a small hint at Berkelouw’s Antiquarian collection. As a foreseeable result, there’s invariably an art student or two pouring over some cumbersome texts on a long wooden table. Behind this lot is second-hand fiction, again crime and the classics, but also an impressive selection of Australian novels. A friend recently lent me Seven Types of Ambiguity by Aussie Author Elliot Pearlman. He insisted it was great, and it was time for me to taste some real Australian talent. I haven’t read any local writers. Yet. Although as it turns out Markus Zusak, of The Book Thief fame is Australian, and I really enjoyed that one. Just looking through the shelves of native authors I can tell I’m far behind. Then I look up 50 Australian must-reads and I feel suitably shamed! There’s just so much to work with down here, culturally, historically, geographically. We’ll see how Pearlman goes down after three months of fantasy… Any other suggestions?
But back to Berkelouw. On this first floor they manage to balance the sobre rows of books with all the light from the front windows. The whole place is bright and airy. There’s a bar-table along the glass façade that is the perfect width for a laptop and a wine glass. Also a great spot for people watching on Oxford Street. The natural light lends itself to long reading sessions, as do a couple of well-worn leather armchairs. The shop could do with a few more soft furnishings though. Doesn’t much matter because everything seems hand picked and placed, from the books in the display cases to the quirky cake trays and the antique bone-handle knives.
All of their wines are similarly boutique, each coming from a family run vineyard and mostly though not exclusively from Australia. Shelved above the marble top bar are a few bottles of Shiraz labelled Peccavi- Latin for ‘I have sinned’. I look forward to saving up enough to tuck into a few glasses of that with my new book! For today I’ve settled for cheesecake and Sauvignon Blanc, on a background of jazz music- one has to be decadent sometimes!
It’s worth noting at this point that Berkelouw is run by three brothers. Paul, Robert and David Berkelouw make up the sixth generation of book-dealers in their family! Berkelouw’s was first established in Rotterdam in 1812 and has been trading in Sydney since 1948. These three guys live and breathe books. As Robert stated in a 2002 interview “This is such a wonderful business…It’s not like you’re selling people bags of potatoes”. And that they certainly aren’t. At Berkelouw the Book is on a pedestal. Although they now operate a few branches throughout Australia, a number in Sydney itself, each one I’ve visited had its own unique feel and flavour. The Leichart branch houses the renowned “Reading Studio” for kids, which David explains in an interview here– it’s worth a watch to get a sense of his wonderment at and commitment to children reading. The O’Connell Street branch similarly family friendly. The warehouse setting, sun streaming from skylights and an open barn door on the first floor, all embody the bohemian, alternative feel that is so distinctive about Newtown. And THEN, there’s Paddington.
Paddo has a touch more elegance and finesse, and the wine bar, actually called Café 1812, is bound to increase the air of sophistication. The Café was quiet last week, but then I suppose it’d only just opened. It’s been picking up lately and there are enough bodies around to put meat on the bones of the place without making it crowded. The people who frequent this bookshop are simply marvellous. On every visit I meet someone new and fascinating. There’s the science teacher who comes in to release his inner novelist. There are the young actors preparing for upcoming shows. Retired interior designers and more. And that’s before you even take a crack at the staff! There’s someone from every walk of life and so many seem game for a chat. I’m usually quite shy in such settings but this place seems to release my inner chatterbox. You just have to try it. They have home baked cakes brought in everyday. Every single day.
Anyway. Once you make it past the bar, there’s the last stairway, climbing into the real second hand: thousands more books. There’s History, Australiana, more art and photography, architecture, an impressive gender section, fiction and automotives, and other more obscure things. There’s also a good range of kids books by the front window where there’s another little nook to read in. Plonked in-between the towering stacks are leather loungers that dare you not to set yourself down. Warning- extended periods will cause stiff backs and light purses. This is a cave of wonders the way it should be, showing just why the mania at Gould’s isn’t necessary when housing a huge second hand collection!
Berkelouw’s does everything right, it’s clear and well thought out, and it has a superb collection. The location is brilliant. The coffee is good. The ale’s even better (try the Two Birds Sunset Ale, it’s cracking). Could it be too well put together? In many ways they seem still undecided about whether to fully embrace chic and suave or comfortable and rustic. I’m sure the clientele will decide that for them in the end. But for now, at times the growing pains leave you are a little self-conscious as a customer, a little too aware of the mark your glass makes on the polished wood and other such nonsense. With time I’ve allowed myself to relax into the old blues and jazz that floats through the place and not be too intimidated by Robert Berkelouw, who never seems too far away.
1812 is more of a writing spot than a place to read- for that I’d head to the Newtown branch which has leather sofas that almost swallow you up. If you’re planning a productive afternoon this is a brilliant place to see the day out, to shift from coffee to wine or treat yourself after a movie, the Verona Cinema’s just next door!
- Location: 4 Again, Oxford street is serviced by a million buses so it’s easy to get to- the 333 to Bondi Beach even passes through. And then there are many other little bookshops to visit around here.
- Lure: 3.5 Loud and proud about what it is, the glass windows promise bright and airy yet there’s still a boutique feel from the personal touches in the window.
- Linger/lounge factor: 4.75 The food/drink is great, but they are limited in curl-up corners. Brilliant for meet-ups, dates (I wish!), studying or writing though.
- Clear layout: 4.5 everything signposted and clearly demarcated, including what is and isn’t second hand, the only oversight is perhaps not being more obvious that there’s a 3rd floor to explore past the bar.
- Comprehensive collection: 4.75 not to mention the online options.
- Inspiring options: 4.5
- Friendly, knowledgeable staff: 4.5 The book team are particularly great and can usually figure out title or author from some garbled description of ‘some recommendation from somewhere’ (look out for the ginger man with the beard and the cutesy brunette with the big eyes- super friendly)
- Good prices/good offers: 4 They have the usual new books at $19.99, the vintage classics at $9.95 and then the second hand paperbacks that hover about $8.50, unbeatable collection. The food is well priced given the quality of the stuff, there’s the usual $4 coffees, and even the cheaper wines are pretty quaffable- house wine at $7.50 I think.
- Diversified: 4.5 They have new books and old books, they have the knickknacks, the notebooks, the bags and the pencils, then they have the wine bar and restaurant with the snazzy Brazilian Chef, could you diversify more?
- Unique: 3.5 The decor is quite original, composed of handpicked, often antique items. The individual displays are rather striking. What they’ve put together here is brilliant if not completely out of the box.
Peacock overall rating: 4.75
19 Oxford Street, Paddington,
Sydney NSW 2021
(02) 9360 3200