Newtown is a pretty cool place.
If you live in Sydney and aren’t a soulless automaton, you probably already know this. If you don’t, it’s the place Coldplay filmed the video for “A Sky Full of Stars”. Go watch that, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of Newtown.
It’s an inner-city suburb full of liberal, artsy types, a healthy balance of laminate-table eateries and organic artisan bakeries, countless live music venues and competing buskers and a sprinkling of adult stores to keep things interesting. You can get vegan gelato next door to a greasy kebab place. Every light post is plastered with posters calling for the overthrow of the government, the socialist revolution. Hipsters abound. It’s a great place.
Last Sunday, Sydney had its first proper spring day, so we went into Newtown to celebrate. After seeing ‘What We Do In The Shadows’ – very good, very funny highly recommended – and having lunch at my favourite pie place, we headed to Elizabeth’s.
Elizabeth’s is my favourite bookshop. There’s a few of them around, but the Newtown store on King Street is my preferred stop for all my paperback needs. From the front it’s mostly unremarkable. It stocks your usual on-trend biographies, glossy crime fiction and old classics with new covers. There are usually bargain bins full of two dollar thrillers and old hard-boiled paperbacks rolled out onto their patch of footpath, with colourful children’s book displays in the windows and posters touting new releases. What does make it stand out is their prominent display entitled ‘Blind Date With a Book’
A single book, wrapped in brown paper with nothing but a few key words to guide your choice. You don’t know what you’ve got until you’ve taken it home and unwrapped your lovely little gift to yourself (and if you’ve already read it, you can take it back). I think it’s about encouraging people to look beyond the title/author/cover of the book, but it’s also just a really cool way of selling books. And getting people into your store.
Which leads us to the back of Elizabeth’s, where shiny covers and crisp spines give way to a treasure trove of tattered, battered, dusty, pre-loved titles. The second-hand section is where the real beauty lies. Carefully sorted by genre, there are shelves upon shelves of well-worn classics and obscure special interest tomes, of sci-fi franchise novels and questionable erotica. There are plays and lit crit and anthologies and essays and old, leather-bound books with tissue-thin, yellowed pages and copies of Northanger Abbey still bearing the cursive annotation of its last owner.
I adore second hand bookstores. I rarely buy anything, because I’m on a budget and don’t need any more books when I already have so many waiting to be read, so I avoid going into them and falling into the trap. But when I allow myself that pleasure, it is one of my favourite ways to pass the time. Many of my books came from second hand stores with broken spines and dog-eared pages, and while some might object, I almost enjoy this more than the crisp corners and faded glue smell of brand new books.
I think second hand books, apart from being recycled, which is always good, are a call back to the oral storytelling traditions of days long gone, when stories were passed from one to the next and ever carrier left their mark on the words. I’m a strong believer in stories belonging to their audience, being shaped by their readers and shaping them in return. A second hand book isn’t just a story on pages – it bears snippets of the stories of its owners gone by. I hardly dare say it, lest I start turning into a rabid Newtown hipster myself – they have character.
Also, second hand book stores like Elizabeth’s are really really fun.
I didn’t buy anything this trip – budget, lack of shelf space, too many books – but I’ve enjoyed some great finds in the past. My copy of The Princess Bride came from here, as did my Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (half way through the former, working on the latter). Maybe once I’ve finished those I’ll let myself buy a few more.
Most cities have a Newtown. You probably know where yours is. On your next sunny weekend, I can strongly recommend eating pie and bookshop browsing. Two thumbs up, would go again.