The Painted Word

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By: John Kerrens

John Maynard Keynes once gave the following advice about visiting a bookshop:

“A bookshop is not like a railway booking office, which one approaches knowing what one wants. One should enter it vaguely, almost in a dream, and allow what is there freely to attract and influence the eye. To walk the rounds of the bookshops, dipping in as curiosity dictates, should be an afternoon’s entertainment”.

The great man can be forgiven a bit of flowery prose – economics usually not lending itself to outpourings of romanticism. No such sentiment is needed to visit the best of our independent bookstores, though.

Bookhouse, St Kilda’s only second-hand bookshop, originally opened its premises on Fitzroy Street in 1997. Over the years, it has been a wonderful source of all things written; of the non-blockbuster variety.

Proprietors Ben Kemp and Margot McCartney recently moved the shop to its airy, stylish new premises in Robe Street. The near-legendary ‘Nefertiti’ sign on the window was always going to be a keeper and functions as a nice signpost for the new premises.

The emphasis now is more on the visual: Photography, Fashion, Art & Design, Architecture… The shop has the look and feel of a small art gallery. Back copies of old ‘Interview’ magazines; covers featuring the likes of Sarandon, Depp and Lydon/Rotten, line one side of the room. Wonderful posters of old ‘New Yorker’ covers on the other (recently, two of these were bought by a visitor from New York, for the wall of his apartment in NYC. That’s globalisation).

As for the visual arts: there’s everything from Kandinsky to Lichtenstein and Munch to De Stijl, among many others. Archictecture; Aalto, Gaudi, Gehry, Van der Rohe and… Bauhaus.

The old store had an emphasis on Literature, and the new premises has a large collection also – not all of it on display. The centrepiece is the collection of more than 1800 Penguin Classics, which stare down rather balefully from their glass display cabinet, demanding to be read.

In the 80’s and 90’s there was much (legitimate) concern that large chains like Borders would devour small, local operations, this hasn’t quite eventuated. Melbourne still has a number of small independent bookstores, both new and second-hand. Kindle may be a threat but enough people still like their books in ‘Old School’ format to prevent paper books from being made into, well… kindling.

In any large city there are a number of things which make life worth living: good cafes, restaurants, clubs, galleries, and, of course, good bookstores. Second-hand shops like Bookhouse and its contemporaries are an important resource for the city.



52 Robe St, St Kilda

Opening hours: Wednesday to Sunday 9:00 AM – 6.00 PM

Phone: 9534 7841

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