Welcome back to Bookspot of the Week! For today’s bookspot, we’re featuring Mark Rubbo, the co-owner of Readings in Carlton, Melbourne Australia. Readings aims to create a welcoming space for its readers, while also giving back to the community with its charitable work. It also happens to be the winner of the inaugural Independent Bookstore of the Year award in 2016. With a beautiful space and a wide selection of books, Readings is the place to be!
How did your bookstore transition from concept to reality?
Well, our store has gone through quite a number of iterations as it was opened in 1969. Then it was in a very small premises and it’s specialisation then was American Small Press titles! I and my partners took it over in 1976 at a time when the Australian publishing industry was taking off so promoting local writers and their stories became a passion and a focus and continues to this day. One of the things I realised early on was that our space was too small to offer the range I wanted. It took me 20 years to find our current space of 4000 square feet and luckily we found that a year before Borders opened up across the street. Good design has always been important to me and creating a space that is comfortable to be in. Two years ago we did a major refit with architect Emilo Fuscaldo and I think we have created something that works and is really special. It has been featured in the recent Gestalten book, Do You Read Me.
What do you feel is unique to your bookstore?
We are blessed to be located in an area that I believe is one of the best places to sell books in Australia. We are two blocks away from one of Australia’s largest, oldest universities in a street that is iconic in Australia as our little Italy. When Readings opened it was a very bohemian area full of experimental artists and arts organisations and is still home to the independent theatre, La Mama, and Australia’s largest Art house cinema complex, Nova. It’s not far from the CB and is close to large residential areas. The people who hang around Carlton are interested in books and especially the books we feel proud to sell. I think we have been very responsive to trends in book retailing; we started our events program in the early 80s, one of the first Australian bookshops to do so; our first monthly magazine came out in the late 70s and continues to do so to this day and gets better and better; we launched our website in the mid 90s although it is still a struggle to get right. We’ve also managed to get highly committed booksellers to work for us, many of whom have made a tremendous contribution not only to the store but the industry as a whole.
If you had infinite space, what might you add to the store?
I would add another two levels to our store, bring our children’s books (we moved them to a separate shop in 2016) back in, relocate all back of house from its current remote site, have lots more books, have public spaces the community could use, and workspaces that we could provide for writers. Sadly that’s probably not going happen in my lifetime.
How do you feel your bookstore fits into your local community?
I think it does really well; part of that is just the fact that we have been around a long time and are part of the furniture. I have always lived in the area so it is home to me. I’ve served on the boards of local organisations and we have strong ties with residents and local traders. We have been moderately successful and have always financially supported community organisations – local schools, homework clubs and the like. In 2009 we formailsed that and set up the Readings Foundation to support literacy and the arts. We give 10% of our profits to the Foundation and ask our customers to make a small donation when they want a book gift wrapped – 2009 we’ve given away over $1.5 million and have a corpus of $600,000 to help ensure that the works goes on.
What does your store offer that a chain or online retailer can’t?
We are small chain ourselves now with 7 shops but like to think of ourselves as independent. While we are a business and have huge financial responsibilities to our staff, our suppliers and landlords and we know we need to make a profit, it’s not the driving force. For me it’s about making a positive contribution to our community by supporting our writers, by giving our customers a wonderful range of books and the encouragement and advice to make choices, and through our charitable work.
Do you hand-pick your staff to create a specific environment?
A lot of people want to work for us and we want people to be knowledgeable and enthusiastic and be able to share that with their colleagues and customers. I think it’s important we create a safe and welcoming space for people to come to and spend time in. I know a lot of our regulars use the bookshop as a refuge. One of our customers recounted to me the story of their grandfather ( a regular) who had an accident and was in a coma. The first thing he said when he came out of the coma was “Take to me to Readings.” I want staff who work for us to come with happy memories and better able to prosper in this world. Training and professional development is something we could and want to do better; remuneration too is an issue. We try to redress that a bit by distributing 10% of profits back to staff as a dividend. Sometimes it’s significant, sometimes it’s not. We are now thinking more about diversity and can we encourage a more diverse workforce.
How else do you create a welcoming environment?
We all go out of our way to help – we really want to put the book in people’s hands and will go to great lengths to do that. As I said before we use design to create that welcoming environment. Having said that we could always do better; I get lots of wonderful compliments from customers I meet about Readings and particularly the people who are there. I think we could always do better though.
What about your store do you think appeals to your neighborhood?
Our store won the inaugural Independent Bookstore of the Year award in 2016 and Australian independent bookseller of the year many times so I think the community like that and are proud. They meet friends (or did until Covid), they bring interstate and overseas visitors to the shop, and they feel a very real sense of ownership.
Do you have any staff picks or releases we should watch out for?
Our equivalent of the Man Booker, the Miles Franklin, is announced in 3 weeks. One of the books, The White Girl, is by a regular and local Tony Birch. I’m hoping that will win. We also have high hopes for A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville which comes out next week. I’ve just finished Humankind by Rutger Bregman and highly recommend it, and one of my favourite novels is Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Annapara – such a refreshing new voice.
Do you tailor your inventory according to your community?
Yes we do – I’m a retailer and I love to sell stuff. Fortunately we are in an area where our customers’ tastes and our tastes are broadly aligned although I totally do not understand graphic novels.
Thanks for tuning in! For more bookish content, be sure to check out @readingsbooks on Instagram. Do you know of a book shop worthy of a spotlight on our site? Contact us through any of our socials and you may just find it here next week!