There will be many of us out there who have very fond memories of our favourite bookshops – the smell of the new pages, the treasure trove of stories, the friendly staff to help discover the perfect new read. We chatted to incoming Australian Booksellers Association (ABA) president Jay Lansdown and owner of Crows Nest favourite Constant Reader about his bookstore and the future landscape for booksellers.
Constant Reader has been a mainstay on the Willoughby Road strip for many years. Can you tell us about the history and how you got involved?
Constant Reader started in 1979, so we’re celebrating our 40th anniversary this year. The bookshop used to be in the nail salon across the road and moved into its current premises in 1989. I worked for the original owner, Peter Kirby, a long time ago in the returns department. I moved to Hong Kong, had a long dabble in the corporate world and moved back here in 2005. In 2009 Peter asked me to manage the bookstore and in 2012 the timing was right to buy the store when Peter retired.
What do you love about your job?
I just love stories and by extension that means I love books. It sounds really clichéd but there is nothing better than handing someone a book that you’ve loved, knowing them well enough that they are going to love it too. Hopefully we do well enough with our recommendations that people come back.
There’s a book coming out in September called Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky. It’s nothing like his other books, it’s like old school Stephen King and I can’t wait to get it into the hands of our readers. It’s things like this that excite me about the bookselling world, there’ll always be new material to get enthusiastic about.
What is Constant Reader’s point of difference?
Well, it has to be our staff. It’s the subjective skill of the bookseller to be able to ask the right questions and know the right answer. Many of my staff have been working in Constant Reader for a long time and have a great relationship with the customers. I’m confident that we know enough about the books to make suggestions and that we’re not arrogant when we get it wrong – it’s all a learning process!
We’ve heard a lot about bookshops struggling to survive in the digital age. How does Constant Reader stay strong?
As I mentioned, our staff are key to making this store work but we’re also well-placed by being able to deliver quickly. We hold so much stock that you can come into our store, ask for a recommendation and get that book in your hands in 45 seconds if we’re quick! Despite all the promises, that’s not something that the online giants can do and even a very quick printer couldn’t spit out an e-book in that time.
Funnily enough, e-reader sales and e-book sales have plateaued recently. There’s definitely a time and a place for them but I think many people are turning back to traditional retail. We’re social beings, and just the interaction of going out shopping, saying hello a stranger or bumping into someone you know when you are out and about keeps people social.
Australia’s independent book sector is actually pretty strong and we’re determined to keep it that way. It does sadden me when I hear of any bookstore closing. I don’t want to jinx things but I think if we stick with the magical formula of the right staff, curating the stock to what the customers want and displaying the books in an attractive way then we’ll continue to stay strong.
How involved is Constant Reader in the North Sydney Community?
We run the Writers at Stanton program, free events that are held at lunchtimes at Stanton Library. It’s one of the longest, continually running literary events in Australia and has brought hundreds of writers in touch with their readers. We get involved with many events at the North Sydney Community Centre, which runs some amazing programs. On an ad hoc basis we also make a lot of donations to local schools.
How has Crows Nest changed over the years you’ve been there?
It has and it hasn’t! It’s still got a great village feel and I think that’s what makes Sydney such a lovely place – Crows Nest, Balmain, Mosman, Paddington all these villages that can sustain a village bookshop. With higher density building, I think we’ve still managed to retain that special feeling on Willoughby Road and I’m pretty confident that it’s going to remain that way.
What’s in store for the future?
You’d be mad to say they aren’t challenges for booksellers. But I inherently think there is a huge future for books and bookshops. We’ve just launched events in store in the evenings – our inaugural event was Bri Lee in conversation with Jane Caro. It’s an exciting time and I’m always optimistic that there’ll be kids and adults for years to come who’ll want to come in and leaf through a book in store.
The Constant Reader, 27 Willoughby Road Crows Nest