By Paul Feain
In 1980 I was driving my cab around Sydney and was restless. Every day I would call into bookshops and opportunity shops and buy books and I was driving the cab less and less and making less money and acquiring more books and cluttering the house.
Soon I saw a vacant shop in Glebe Point Rd and with my good friend Nan Waterford I approached the Federal Government who owned the building and after some tooing and froing we found ourselves the tenants. The rent was $50 per week and we commenced trading on 20th September 1980. On the first Saturday that we traded we took $102 and I thought that was wonderful. After about a year Nan and I decided peacefully that we would go in different directions and I bought her out of the partnership.
For the next couple of years I drove my cab from 2am to 10 am and then opened the bookshop. My wife Gabrielle often sat here with the kids while I went to an auction or looked at books somewhere. For the next several years I beavered away buying and selling second hand books and specializing in Australian subjects and occasionally handling a few antiquarian books.
I attended book fairs in Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne and in 1987 became a member of ANZAAB. ANZAAB opened up a new world of possibilities. The Cornstalk Bookshop has attended all ANZAAB Book fairs since we became a member and we have also exhibited at International Book fairs in Tokyo, Cologne, Vienna, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Frankfurt, Copenhagen as well as Hong Kong. The Cornstalk Bookshop in partnership with Yushodo of Tokyo and Swindons of Hong Kong started the book fair and we are organizing the fourth one now. We have had many of the leading booksellers from New York, London, Beijing, Tokyo, Sydney and Europe attend these fairs with thousands of visitors coming to purchase.
In 1988 we opened another shop in King St Newtown and we traded in two different locations until 2005 when due to rising rents and falling retail sales we closed sadly closed the Newton operation. This business was very successful for most of the time we were there and provided us with lots of fun and we sold many millions of dollars worth of books. Unfortunately I was never smart enough to purchase the real estate there when it was affordable.
In 1995 we purchased the building at 112 Glebe Point Road at auction paying $420,000. Many people in the next couple of weeks told me how stupid I was to pay a price of $60,000 more than the reserve. It is here in this building that we have been selling books for 30 years.
We also purchased the building behind the shop and have rented this out to bookbinders since. The first binder was a very good promising young man called David Crichton who sadly dies on his 33rd birthday from cancer. Since then the leading Sydney booking firm of Newbold and Collins has occupied these premises. There are five bookbinders working there full time and they proudly carry out the traditional bookbinding craft which is still practiced by a few traditionalists throughout the world.
In 2004 I was elected to the committee of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers and subsequently was appointed secretary. The League meets twice a year in a different city in the world and this has been an exciting part of my bookselling career. I have been responsible for working with the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of the People’s Republic of China and introducing them to ILAB and have overseen their admission to the League. I have been very fortunate to be the recipient of Chinese hospitality several times during trips to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. At the recent June Book fair in London I shared a stand with Cathay Bookshop from Beijing who sold at the fair a twelfth century book printed in China.
Over the years I have been supported by many wonderful staff members, some of whom have gone on to operate their own secondhand bookshops. Some are professors and academics, some have had their books published. I owe a great debt to everyone on my staff and former staff members. These people are my friends and often I have drawn on their wisdom and the business would not have survived without their enthusiasm and support.
The article was published in the Cornstalk blog “Introducing the Cornstalk Gang” (September 9, 2010). It is presented here by permission of Paul Feain. Thank you very much.