With its dimlit, two-storey hoard of left-wing literature, quirky science fiction novellas and old comics, Gould’s Book Arcade looks more like an oversized storage shed than a viable commercial enterprise.
Somehow, though, Australia’s biggest secondhand bookshop (if the website is to be believed) has survived into the new millennium, despite a hostile environment in which bookstores are disappearing faster than you can say “Kindle”.
The Newtown shop is the last one standing out of a long line of bookstores that have come and gone under the stewardship of Bob Gould, an icon of Sydney’s progressive movement since 1967. Bob sadly passed away in 2011.
Beginning with the infamous Third World Bookshop on Goulburn Street in Chinatown, both Bob and his stores were bastions of the anti-war, anti-censorship left throughout the tumultuous Vietnam War era, and became lightning rods for police raids and alleged acts of arson by political opponents.
By the time the King Street branch opened in 1988, times had changed considerably. Many of the ideological battles had been fought and won, thanks in part to Bob. Political congregations no longer had the urgency of decades past, although events like the 2000 debate involving Henry Reynolds and Keith Windschuttle over the Aboriginal massacres kept Gould’s Book Arcade alive as a community platform.
Today, the store’s political role is much more subtle, but still central. Bob’s daughter, Natalie, and wife, Janet, continue to put up pro-refugee posters outside the shop, to the irritation of the local council. Natalie says their support of the asylum seeker community has transformed Gould’s Book Arcade into something like “an immigration office”.
“I wouldn’t be busting my guts to keep the place open if it was just a bookshop,” Natalie says. “The reason why we exist is because we are a left-wing bookshop.”
Then there’s the unrivalled collection of progressive literature, including but not limited to an expansive section on the labour movement, which sprawls almost an entire wall in itself. “Bob used to say that politics doesn’t have to pay the rent and everything else does,” Natalie says, adding that left lit has ironically become more lucrative as it’s gotten scarcer.
Nowadays, the store’s problems are more financial than political. Two years after Bob’s death, Gould’s is struggling to stay afloat as the system he incessantly railed against drives down prices. A recent emphasis on online sales and the alphabetical categorisation of the physical shelves has mitigated this somewhat, but making the store’s mammoth collection more accessible is proving to be a challenge.
Of course, for some customers sifting through the chaos is as thrilling as it is daunting. I personally don’t remember ever going to Gould’s and returning with a book I had set out to find.
But having nearly exhausted the family’s financial resources, for Natalie, the bottom line is looming. “Bob never wanted to believe that there were people who didn’t come in because they just couldn’t cope with the chaos,” she says. “And that’s real.”
Natalie reckons Gould’s has about six months to turn things around. Otherwise, the store could go the way of the recently closed Newtown branch of Berkelouw Books, leaving an ever-widening hole in Sydney’s cultural, historical and political landscape.
“The thing about the history of the shop is that it’s the history of quite a lot of people as well,” Natalie says.
“In times when fucking Abbott is in power, we need a progressive bookshop.”