Dawn, congratulations on your recent election as the President of The Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers! Some of us have met you before at ILAB congresses and fairs, but for those who have not met you, could you share your background, how you entered the world of rare books, and describe your business?
Thanks Angelika! My background is in the performing arts and academia, running retreats and workshops; writing, performing, and producing. For some time, I was the artistic director of the Australian chapter of the Magdalena Project, an international network of women in the performing arts. I have undertaken doctoral studies in feminist performance, and for a long time I have been interested in the multitude of ways in which people make meaning in their lives. I never planned to become a bookseller, but I have always been a reader and lover of books.
I entered the world of antiquarian bookselling when I married Hamish Alcorn. He had just bought Archives Fine Books, a large second-hand bookstore in the heart of Brisbane’s central business district. Since 1985 it has occupied the entire ground floor of a heritage listed building at 40 Charlotte Street. There are approximately 300,000 books on the shelves at any given time. Most of this stock is NOT searchable online but is organised by subject and alphabetised by author. Managing this incredible space and volume is the work of Hamish and our staff. This “temple of logos” exerted an irresistible gravitational force on my being, and it was inevitable that I was eventually sucked into its orbit.
A pivotal moment on my journey towards full-time antiquarian bookselling was attending CABS in 2015. I cannot speak highly enough of its focused programme, and the generous, experienced, and informative faculty. I had helped design our website and started to catalogue our stock, but I was swimming in a sea of questions. Attending CABS provided some important answers and opened my eyes to a world of possibility. For the first time in my life something genuinely interested me as much as theatre craft.
Looking for more opportunities to grow I applied for the ILAB mentoring programme and was paired with Sally Burdon of the Asia Bookroom (Canberra). I highly recommend this programme to any bookseller looking to develop understanding of and expertise in the world of rare and antiquarian books. If CABS was a pivotal experience, the ILAB mentorship affirmed and cultivated my new direction.
Archives Fine Books has survived by being a generalist bookstore catering to a wide clientele. Over time, however, our focus in the rare and collectible side of the business has tended towards poetry, literature, history, philosophy, and the arts. I have heard that poetry doesn’t sell, but I have personal passion for it, and the more poetry I catalogue, the more poetry collectors I meet. I find this deeply satisfying.
Given the demands and responsibilities of leading an association, what motivates and inspires you to dedicate your time and efforts to furthering the interests of antiquarian booksellers?
Antiquarian booksellers occupy a unique and important place in the ecosystem of culture worldwide. We are guardians of the human impulse to understand the world and our place in it and to write it down. I want to defend and celebrate this.
When I was first asked to serve on the ANZAAB Board I felt honoured that others perceived I might have a contribution to make. I also saw it as an opportunity to “give back” to an association that had already given me so much. From the start I have been supported to grow as a bookseller by the generosity of colleagues much more experienced than myself. I was supported by ANZAAB to attend CABS in 2015 and by both ANZAAB and ILAB to attend the Pasadena ILAB Congress in 2018. The deeply collegial nature of our trade is professionally rewarding and personally satisfying. I take delight in the ideas of my fellow board members and enjoy working with them. In 2025 we will be hosting the ILAB President’s Meeting in Melbourne, and we are just starting to plan the 50 th Anniversary of ANZAAB celebrations for 2027.
How have you observed the trade evolving over the past few years since you joined the world of rare books? Are there any notable trends or changes that you believe are shaping the market for rare books?
I entered the trade when many were sounding the death knell for the open bookstore and for books in general. Many specialty bookstores around us closed or moved their stock online. Readers moved from print books to e-books and then many returned to print. Collectors are increasingly younger, and I find I am responding to diverse collection enquiries. I don’t yet feel experienced enough to predict market trends. My curiosity about what print material younger collectors are gathering and my desire to encourage them has led to the establishment of the Archives Fine Book Collecting Prize for young collectors. Ask me again after we have run the prize for ten years and I might have more to say about that.
In your opinion, what role does education play in promoting awareness and appreciation for antiquarian books, and do you plan to enhance these aspects within the association?
I think education is very important. In an era where there are shrinking opportunities for people to apprentice themselves to a bookseller in an open bookstore, courses like CABS, YABS, and rare book schools are invaluable. Since attending CABS in 2015 I have been keen to see an educational initiative specifically for booksellers established in our region. We don’t have the volume of booksellers to support an annual week-long event, but ANZAAB has partnered with the 2024 Australia and New Zealand Rare Book School to provide a bursary for a bookseller to attend the course of their choice.
ILAB has also generously agreed to support a bookseller residing outside Australia to attend. The 2024 Rare Book School is being hosted by the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne and will run from February 4-9 (links below).
For some time ANZAAB has supported a member to attend an ILAB Congress. We see this as an educational and relationship building opportunity for members wishing to expand their horizons. Tim White of Books for Cooks (Melbourne) was the recipient of the bursary to attend the Oxford Congress in 2022, and we will shortly be announcing the successful applicant to the 2024 ILAB Congress in Amsterdam.
ILAB national association presidents will meet in July 2025 in Melbourne for the ILAB Presidents’ Meeting; we look forward to meeting you and your colleagues in Australia.
The ILAB Committee thanks you and your colleagues for your efforts in organizing such a meeting.
We are very much looking forward to welcoming you to Australia!
Dr. Dawn Albinger
Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers
Interview: Angelika Elstner