Vale Bob Gould, Bookseller Extraordinaire

Bob Gould's Book ArcadeA 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.

Bob Gould needs more space IIIOf 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.

Bob Gould needs more space II 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.

Bob Gould.s Rivera tributeYesterday, friends remembered him as a gregarious, stubborn and well-read man, always willing to argue for his beliefs.

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

Categories: arts & entertainment, history, Politics

Tags: ,

6 replies

  1. What a beautiful story. And so well written, it must be said.
    I can’t help feeling nostalgic about it. There seem to be no more activist booksellers nowadays.

  2. Thanks Tigtog, i haven’t been in that shop for nearly three decades but it has remained in my heart as the quintessential second hand bookshop. i had a comic that i saved from first year uni. set in a bookshop, the dude behind the desk says; “Revolutionary socialism is just where it has always been, just around the corner” that was Gould’s for me. Oh and all the Asimov’s, AC Clarks etc i bought as a kid. Vale.

  3. I’m not sure whether either of them believed in an afterlife, but if there is one I’m seeing Bill Hunter and Bob Gould having a fine old time arguing about exactly why the world is going to hell in a a handbasket and who the biggest bastards are behind it all.

  4. I didn’t steal Abbie Hoffman’s book from Bob, bought it along with all those organic catalogues and great books of the 60s and 70s. Still have not been able to finish “Life a Users manual”
    You could get an ASIO file just by walking into the shop.
    Gould’s could always manage to find a book that was otherwise unavailable.

  5. Thanks for the story Tigtog, I hadn’t heard this sad news.
    I used to visit his shop regularly when I lived in the area, and still do on my trips back to Sydney, as I know I can always find that book no one else seems to have. For me the search – the moving of piles of books and boxes, and dealing with the dust – is integral to the Gould’s book buying experience. He was such great figure; I loved his commitment and activism.

  6. Oh, that’s sad news. I’ve spent most of my life in Newtown and have been going to Gould’s since I was small enough to get well & truly lost in the back shelves. My mum & dad used to go there often when they were dating. I love the musty-old-paper smell that’s so strong in there that it gusts out as you walk past. I’m sorry to hear that he’s gone- I really thought he’d live forever, propped at the front counter giving baffling directions to the books you were after.

%d bloggers like this: