I don’t like being negative, especially about books and bookshops. My general optimism, correct me if I’m wrong, has set the overall mood of my Sydney reviews. You could, I suppose, argue that Gould’s was an exception. Yet even at my most contrary I will concede that it delivers on the bewildering yet wondrous promise of its’ chaos.
I recently visited Gleebooks, and I just didn’t get the hype. Since arriving in Sydney I’ve been told they’re must-see shops. They are listed on Lonely Planet. Many an article has counted it amongst the City’s top 10 bookstores. Well, Humbug. I really wouldn’t bother if I were you. Indeed I was so disappointed I’d like to leave it at that.
However, the shops are usually so well received I can hardly get away with being quite so flippant. So let me walk you through it. First off, Gleebooks, is actually two stores. The original, second-hand shop is housed at 191 Glebe Point Road, and its younger brother sells the rest at no.49.
No.191 is a shoebox. Books on three sides and just one central isle, there’s not much to get lost in. It’s all well organised and tidy, there’s some good stuff in the arts, history and literature, a small spattering of classics. But there’s not much charm, save the charmer at the counter. With little encouragement he walks me through the history of the shop. He shows me photographs of it first opening over 30 years ago. I look past the counter at the spot captured by the romantic black and white image; the place hasn’t changed a jot. To be fair they did expand into neighbouring premises for a few years but these were recently turned back into a deli. In the squeeze the children’s section was relocated to no.49, we both agree this must have been a terrible loss. Encouraged by the gentleman’s sunny disposition I have a little peruse. ‘The shopkeeper’s really nice’, I whispered to a friend. ‘But he’s probably the asshole who prices this stuff’, he responded, pointing to a scribbled $25 in the cover to John Irving’s Last Night In Twisted River (a brilliant big-book by the way). Along the shelf, most paperbacks were similarly expensive. We make a polite exit.
This mini bookshop can’t be what everyone’s on about. It’s not much smaller than Oscar & friends, yet they are just plain pokey where O&F has successfully harnessed the Narnia effect- you walk into a closet space and your ignited imagination does the rest. I looked back at the storefront of this diminutive establishment and decided the celebrated gleebooks must be no.49.
From the street the artfully painted wooden awning and inviting green windows create a rustic, homemade feel. No. 49 is very welcoming. Once inside there are clear wooden signs to guide the reader through a vast collection. Blue brick walls draw light through the shop giving the place a brightness promised by the name. All of this bodes well.
The main display in the entrance involves a great heap of cookbooks. And here’s the first stumble. Unfortunately the effect is dumpy rather than mouth-watering. To its left are crime and fiction, the options impressive. Even more so is the Biography section. Here propped up in place of honour was Salman Rushdie’s much-touted memoir Joseph Anton. It was on sale. My interest was piqued. I flipped the cover. At a huge discount, it’s still a whopping $29.95. Richard Gill, who gave a hilarious account of his life at a Café 1812 event last week, is selling at $49.99- he’s a smashing story teller and a fascinating man, but I’ll be waiting for the paperback. Anyhow, by now I’m clued into keeping my eye on prices.
I had noticed at the Gleebooks bookstalls during the Festival of Dangerous Ideas last month that they were expensive. I had assumed a moderate price hike had been made on account of the event’s captive audience. I was wrong. Every book I checked out was priced at or over $30, from paperback fiction to philosophy basics. I did not actually flip every book, but I have wide interests and I feel I can honestly say I perused a good cross-section.
The half dozen signs warning me to leave my bag at the counter before heading upstairs felt like overkill. Many other shops have managed to make this request in an understated, respectful manner, here it just felt invasive and I almost bypassed the second floor altogether. But then there might have been a wonderland to explain the fuss. There wasn’t. Upstairs housed a huge range of titles in the arts, photography and architecture etc but again there was a total lack of flair. This may be different when the room is being used for events, and I understand they regularly host free book launches that are very well received.
There were highlights; they have a smashing literary criticism section, though again it’s daylight robbery. The Kids section has a real touch of originality; Enter at your peril after a big lunch- this space is child sized! I was impressed that they highlighted not just the latest Anthony Horowitz but some classic Roald Dahl- The Twits and Witches and Boy will never get old for me. Of note as well were their literary reviews- their own free reading guide is clear and functional and the ‘Gleebooks Gleaner’ is personal and insightful if at times poorly written. They’re also well stocked with critic magazines/journals from the Australian Review of Books, to the Times Literary Supplement and The New York Review of Books (my favourite). But then again you’ll get these cheaper at Better Read Than Dead in Newtown: $11 instead of $13, it all adds up!
Actually Better Read Than Dead (BRTD) provides a good comparison here. I continue to swing by this cute weeshop despite the new-book cost, at $19.95-$30 it’s nowhere near as prohibitive as Gleebooks. BRTD has friendly staff full of good ideas and inspired recommendations; they have equally fine signposting but balance the practical with a touch of fun. The displays are thoughtful, the shelving has a bit of diversity and the paintwork is a bold.
Gleebooks does have an astounding collection in its breadth and depth, that I can’t dispute. And I suspect that in the end my disappointment does come back to price. I’ll often flirt with buyer’s guilt and stronger portion controls for the sake of a good book, but I’m reluctant to end up in the poorhouse on account of this particular addiction. It’s cheap and easy to buy books online, yet I am one of many who persevere in buying from actual bookshops. It seems important. I feel especially strongly about independent retailers because I think they do something wonderful, and essential. Places like Berkelouw, Elizabeth’s and Oscar &Friends bring the romance of the book to new generations and house variety we wouldn’t stumble upon with online searches. Nevertheless, I’m not made of money and I feel the extra coinage should be paying for the experience. As the age old saying goes “I like to get kissed before I get screwed”. Well, Gleebooks sucks at foreplay.
- Location: 4 A five minute walk from Central Station, on the buzzing street of Glebe Pt Road and just minutes from the Sydney Uni Campus.
- Lure: 2.5 the awning’s a nice touch
- Linger/lounge factor: 2 the second hand is too small to settle in though the bookseller’s ver welcoming and the shop at 49 seems overfull with no seating area save the mini chairs in the child section
- Clear layout: 2.5 Clear signposting, though the stacks tend to thoughtless
- Comprehensive collection: 4 this is a HUGE collection
- Inspiring options: 3 if you can sift through to them
- Friendly, knowledgeable staff: 4/2 191 had the lovely caretaker, no49 seemed to be abuzz with activity but no one really has time for you. They do smile a lot.
- Good prices/good offers: 1 trying to find something i could afford was demoralizing, though they did have a sale outside.
- Diversified: 2 all books, but a lot of em.
- Unique: 2
Peacock overall rating: 2