A Sydney icon has left us. Activist bookseller Bob Gould died after a fall in his Newtown bookshop at age 74. I didn’t know half the history of his fairly notorious political engagement, but I did know his bookshops, and everybody knew that you could get books there that you wouldn’t find anywhere else in Sydney (a legacy mostly from the time of active book censorship that ended in the 70s, but the reputation clung due to Bob’s catholic tastes in stock purchases). His family ensured that the bookshop was open again a few hours after his death. I’m certain he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Of course, finding the book you wanted might mean mounting a well-provisioned expedition complete with a ball of string to unwind behind you so you could find your way out of distant corners. If you imagine the stereotypical, small, dusty secondhand bookshop, enlarge it substantially and then imbue this cavern with many of the bigger-on-the-inside properties of the TARDIS as if designed by Escher, with a section right at the front for political books only, you might start to get a feel for how those shops worked. There were shelves and shelves of obscure titles that rarely seemed to have the dust disturbed on them alongside the actively perused popular fiction, travel guides and assigned textbook shelves. People went in to read books between the obscure stacks and deliberately misfiled them in the wrong section so they could find them again the next time they came in, so you never knew what elusive SF classic you might find in amongst the mid-renaissance histories.
I may have got him wrong, but I always felt a slight sense, if you regularly went to the counter with a pile of escapist fiction only, that although he understood he was taking polite pains not to show some disappointment that you weren’t reading something a bit more substantial as well. The only time I remember him beaming at me was when I purchased a biography of Joan Baez that focussed on her activism, alongside a history of Elizabethan politics (maybe he was just in an especially good mood that day anyway).
In the past decade his single remaining shop in Newtown had become a bit more professionally organised, with an active online selling arm, and slightly less dust. At least near the front counter anyway; the upstairs and back shelves were still an Aladdin’s cave of tottering piles that kept on growing as he purchased collections that institutions were dumping as they digitalised. Bob remained actively engaged with the stock on the shelves, and he kept up his political activities as well.
He was a founder and driving force of the anti-Vietnam War movement in Australia.
A founding member of Labor for Refugees, he was disgusted at the Gillard government’s plans to send asylum seekers to Malaysia.
”I think he would have wanted that on the record,” said Ms Gould. ”One of the last things he said to me was that the Labor Party was falling apart and destroying itself.”
I do hope that the family plans to continue the bookshop tradition, but Bob was one of a kind.
Image Credits: from Newtown Graffiti on Flickr, shared under a Creative Commons License
Gould’s Book Arcade website
The other Gould’s Book Arcade website
Bob Gould’s political writings
A recent tribute (March, 2011) in the SMH:
Novel character who knows every trick in the book
A selection of blog posts about Gould’s Book Arcade from recent years:
Amongst the dusty shelves
Literary List Week: The Most Amazing Bookshops in the World