If a Hollywood casting agent needed to find a lovable bookseller for the lead role in a feature film, she would find herself hard-pressed to meet anyone better suited than Luke Terbutt. Knowledgeable and engaging, always charming, Luke became the proprietor of Alice’s Bookshop—along with his wife, the equally enchanting Selina Braine—earlier this year. Stop to chat with him in the shop and you’ll see that bookselling is less a job than a vocation.
Booklovers in Melbourne can now find Luke—and experience his enthusiasm for all things that come between two covers—most days of the week at 629 Rathdowne Street, Carlton North (for our overseas readers, that’s in Melbourne, Australia). He recently took some time away from his own reading and book buying to answer a few questions for Sacred Trespasses about the trade, his passions and what makes old books special.
What can readers expect to find when they walk through the doors at Alice’s?
The aroma of old paper. Of aging glue and ink. I think that is one of the first things I recall (and notice still) about walking into the store. It’s what I’ve always loved about second-hand shops and about old books specifically—their sensual, tactile nature. It’s quite an intimate space as well. Housed in a “traditional” kind of setting for such books, Alice’s occupies the ground level of an old Victorian house and it tends to have a cozy kind of feel, with three rooms filled floor to ceiling with books. Although organized by category and labeled quite clearly, it still has, I hope, enough of that messy spontaneity which one associates and loves in this kind of shop.
They should also find helpful and knowledgeable staff and lots of interesting books on all sorts of subjects. We cater for a wide range of tastes, from children’s books to literary fiction, through to art, history, philosophy, etc. We also have a beautiful glass cabinet full of rare, modern and antiquarian delights.
What have been some of the most noticeable differences in your move from selling new books to rare and used books?
People prefer to browse, with some customers spending a good hour or three just perusing the shelves. I find that I’m not recommending titles as much as I used to in the new book world because people like to take their time and rummage through the stock at a leisurely pace. Although, because they are not always after the latest or newest book, some come in search of specific, out-of-print titles.
I’m not sure if this is that different to selling new books, but when you’re the only person behind the counter or running the store at a time, you tend to form close and unique relationships with your customers. And not just about books! I find that people are willing to talk about anything and everything. It’s pretty amazing. There’s such great community feeling along this part of Rathdowne Street.
My role is much different as well: I’m no longer just selling books, but buying and accepting all sorts of responsibilities that come with running your own business. So far, close to five months in, it’s been both a trying and rewarding experience. I’m really loving the buying side of things: of finding rare or interesting treasures in boxes, of talking to young families who’re selling, for example, their grandmother’s childhood books. There is often an intimate and, necessarily, emotional connection that people have with books. Some find it very hard to part with their own, let alone those of a dear family member.
One the nicest moments of the last few months came when I got a call from the father of a young philosophy lecturer. He had recently died of a brain tumor and they wanted to donate some of his books. And so they brought them in, the father and mother of the young man. They were lovely. Warm, and happy that their son’s books would be going to a good home. As my own father had died of the same cancer, I felt a strange sense of kinship in what would normally be a sad and difficult thing to deal with. I offered them a sum to donate to the Brain Cancer Council. They accepted, but I could tell they didn’t want to take any money for the books. These were not just books—they were their son’s life.
There were lots of books. Twelve or so boxes full. Great books by Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Badiou, Hegel, Nietzsche, Kant, etc., and I stayed back late and got in early to price them and put them on the shelf. Philosophy books are big in Alice’s, I’ve found; they come in and go out quite quickly—demand always greater than the supply. So anyway, the next day, the afternoon of the morning that I finished pricing and shelving the books a guy in his twenties came in and bought about a third of them. Just like that. I told him about the young philosopher who had died. Of his parents. He told me that he was studying philosophy at university. At home that night I thought about the synchronicity of the last few weeks. Of the last ten or so months that have led me to own this beautiful bookshop. I thought of those books in the young man’s house. Yet they were, as always… not just books.
Most lovers of rare books find themselves in search of specific title or edition, a white whale of a book. What’s yours?
Ha! A first American printing of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Hardcover. Fine condition in fine dustcover, of course. Oh, and signed, preferably.
Although I haven’t really searched for it. I imagine that it might be a little out of my price-range. That would be the dream, though, wouldn’t it? Who knows, it may one day walk right into the shop.
Collectors have a particular type of disease. Borges used to say that when he was in a bookstore, the books he always wanted to buy were the ones he already owned. Where would you place yourself on the mad-collector scale?
Yes, but Borges owned a lot, no? Maybe he wanted doubles or triples of the ones he already had because, who knows, maybe he forgot he had them. I can understand that. Many times over I’ve forgotten I have a particular book (a sure sign that you have too many) and have bought another copy. (I’m not sure it was entirely an accident, however.)
On the mad-collector scale, I’m probably pretty mad. Literature is my main passion, but I love, well... any nice looking or interestingly designed tome. First editions, paperback fiction. I have a lot. Too many, most likely. Photography, art books. Yep. I’ve even got about twenty books on flies. Yes, flies! (I was once going to write a novel about something to do with them). So, yes, out of shelf space and running out of floor space fast. Help!
Recently, with buying the bookshop, I at least have an avenue for offloading some of my slightly under-loved kidlings.
You have two choices—a new, pristine edition of Lolita or a well-thumbed copy of the same title with yellowed pages. Tell us about the benefits of the used edition.
History, firstly. The feeling that the object you are holding has been held before. Has been loved or hated or has had some lasting impression on another human being. If it has been underlined or has writing in the margins... well, what sort of person did this? Why did they not see the beauty of that sentence or the irony in the narrator’s tone? I’m not saying that you always get a sense of this—not everyone leaves physical marks—but when I’m holding a used book I often think about who held it before me. What was their story? Imagine what they might’ve thought of it, whoever and wherever they are now.
Secondly, aren’t we supposed to grow wiser the older we get? I feel that the reading of well-thumbed books gives you a sense of the shared history of reading and of readers. We are always a sort of family, we readers and booklovers, aren’t we? How wonderful it is to know that this book you are holding has been thought about, cared for—or not cared for—before. Maybe it has yellowed just from age. Maybe it has sat upon a shelf and has never been touched. Why hasn’t it been touched? What other books have been touched instead of this wonderful novel that you love and have touched and know so well? Where are these impostors? Off with their heads!
What are some of the most prized editions on your own bookshelves at home? What about those in the shop that you secretly (or not so secretly) hope no one will buy?
Confessions of An English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey, 1856 (one of the first, and few, nineteenth century books I own).
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Signed proof.
How to Be Both by Ali Smith. Signed First Edition.
Complete Works of Vladimir Nabokov. Hardcover, 22 volumes.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Paperback (a copy that still has scribbles and Post-it notes from the first time I read it for university).
A palm-sized wooden New Testament. (Inscribed and bought by my grandmother, Jerusalem 1980).
The History of the Renowned Don Quixote de la Mancha In Four Volumes by Cervantes. Translated by Peter Motteux. Fourth Edition, 1719. (Almost three hundred years old, and the beginning, perhaps, of the novel as we know it).
The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien. Hardcover. First Edition. 1977.
The Complete Last Sitting: Bert Stern Photographs of Marilyn Monroe, 1982.
As the shop turns thirty in May next year, do you have anything planned to mark the occasion?
We are definitely going to have a party! The plan is to open the store late on a Friday or Saturday night and have readings, and wine and nibbles, and to generally have a good time. I have a few ideas about particular poets and writers I’d like to invite to read. I have a few musician friends who may or may not want to perform (they might prefer drinking and perusing the shelves).
What have you enjoyed most about being the proprietor of Alice’s Bookshop so far? What are its greatest challenges?
Challenges first. We want Alice’s to be around for as long as possible. The main challenge would be to run the store well enough so that it continues to thrive and make a profit. In other words, making sure customers are continually satisfied with the service we provide at Alice’s and ensuring there are enough great and carefully selected books to keep people keen enough to keep on coming back.
We realize, as well, that we are not immune from the trend of buying books on the internet, and at the moment we are in the process of remodeling our website. As a traditional, “slow bookshop,” we would like not to devote too much time to this and are yet to decide whether we will embrace selling fully through our website. What will appear—possibly early next year—are interesting, rare and antiquarian books. If we are not going to sell online, than at least those customers who live in Melbourne or are its frequent visitors can look at some of the amazing books that we stock. We’re hoping this will entice them to come in and have a better look at the rest of the books we have in our store.
There are some wonderful, intelligent and thoughtful people who come in. I have enjoyed meeting the locals of Carlton North, the regular faces I see almost everyday for a chat. Besides the act of reading being a solitary endeavor, people still love to talk about the books they love or want to read. I love that part of my job. But it’s not just books, of course. I’m finding that now I spend a good portion of someone’s visit listening to jokes or hearing about troubles.
I’ve enjoyed the buying side of the business as well. I understand and can empathize with someone who has to sell their books: how hard would it be, after all those years, to give up those beautiful, well-loved objects.
That is something that is endearing about the second-hand book business: the way people get attached to words on paper, the ability of a book—for its words or images to continue long after the previous owner has given it up. In a little while, perhaps a new reader may walk into the store and pick up that previous owner’s copy. Maybe they will buy it. Maybe not. On the shelf or off, the lifecycle of books continues.
Also, be sure to check out Lukas Meintjes's beautiful short documentary titled Shelved? It's a love letter to small bookshops (with great footage of Melbourne), featuring Luke and Alice's Bookshop.