Above and beyond in 2020: the best local bookshops of the year

28 Apr 2021

Bookstores played an outstanding role in promoting Australian writing and contributing to their local communities said the ABIA judges.

According to Robbie Egan, the CEO of the Australian Booksellers Association, ‘Bookshops will continue to survive because they are awesome. As far as I’m concerned bookshops are integral to their community and should continue to be so.’

‘We are lucky to have such a high percentage of books be sold through independent bookstores,’ he said.

Read about what these six shortlisted Australian bookstores did across 2020, which has put them in the running for the ABIA Bookstore of the Year award, as submitted in their nomination pitches.

Avid Reader

The Avid Reader, in Brisbane’s West End, was established in 1997.

In 2020, the store hosted over 10,000 registrants over 244 virtual events. Avid Reader’s staff transferred the store’s ‘personality’ online to create safe, warm, well managed and engaging events. And it paid off! People attended from around Australia and the world. 

It continued to focus on the local community and supported nearby businesses. It encouraged its newsletter subscribers to shop local and when COVID-19 first struck, its first response was to run a book drive with Brisbane Domestic Violence Services to gather much needed books, games and toys for women and children finding refuge and emergency shelter.

Avid Reader embraced the artist-lead economic recovery initiative Chrysalis – and helped raise money for the Word Up! mural by the artist Vernon Ah Kee. In addition to Vernon Ah Kee – the bookstore continued its longstanding support of First Nations writers and artists, providing an office for Melissa Lucashenko to use as a writing room. The Avid Reader also has two First Nations people on staff.

Books Kinokuniya

Books Kinokuniya in the heart of Sydney has over 300,000 books – with a range of English, Japanese and Chinese titles. Celebrating many genres and categories – the store even has a Japanese stationery department.

With lockdowns, people working from home, and a decrease in foot traffic in Sydney’s CBD, Books Kinokuniya had to change their usual ways of doing things. Despite closing for five weeks during the height of lockdown, the store was able to retain its 80-odd staff.

Books Kinokuniya found innovative ways to highlight local stories and authors (whether on Zoom or other platforms) and invited authors to film and create content. With an increase in online sales, the team adapted roles and shared the workload – pitching in to pick and pack thousands of orders.

Being surrounded by hotels, the store extended its book curation service to nearby accommodation where people were quarantined, offering books hand delivered and free of charge – a boon for folks with insufficient reading material for a 14-day quarantine period!

Mary Martin Bookshop Southgate

Located in the Melbourne CBD, The Mary Martin Bookshop faced a ‘frightening’ fall in revenue in 2020. On a pre-COVID world its location meant its customers were tourists, office workers and out-of-towners who visit the bookshop as an add-on to a theatre or restaurant experience. 

Its immediate priority was staff care. Their original team is intact – and with two new casuals on board – it’s a strong indicator of the bookstore’s resilience. 

The bookshop continued to remain open seven days a week for all of 2020 – and ran a pop-up shop for a fortnight with proceeds going to the CFA. The bookshop continued its giving programme, supporting  the Royal Children Hospital and the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

To survive they prematurely launched a website enabling online sales, managed its stock and negotiated with landlords, financiers and suppliers. It figured out creative ways to attract visitors back into the city in a COVID safe manner – working with author illustrators to create maps and art installations.

Matilda Bookshop

Matilda Bookshop is set in the Adelaide Hills. It has six staff, including the two co-owners.

In 2020, the small team offered a free Adelaide Hills Delivery service and managed to grow and transform its business. The store hit its highest ever sales figures in 2020.

Its online author events and books sales exceeded its expectations – thanks to book pre-order offers. In addition to events, Matilda continued to find ways to support local South Australian authors with online readings, a dedicated author page and promotions.

While they were not required to close their doors in South Australia, Matilda Bookshop made the decision to close for an extended period ‘as an act of community-centred leadership’. They hand delivered books in the Adelaide Hills suburbs (to a range of 40kms) – and the initiative that was so successful it continues to this day.

The Little Bookroom

The Little Bookroom, in Melbourne’s Carlton North, has been operating for sixty one years.

The Little Bookroom began preparations as COVID-19 disruptions loomed, with an awareness that it and its staff were on the frontline in 2020.

Starting free local home deliveries, the bookstore supplied orders with a speed unmatched by its bigger competitors, including multinationals. They created more meaningful work for its casual staff, retooled their systems and a quickly adaptated to an online business model.

Keeping connected was also important for the Little Bookroom, it kept its newsletter subscribers regularly updated, programmed online storytimes for families, and promoted the work of local creators and publishers.

The Little Bookroom participated in the Bushfire Book Appeal and worked with the Yarra Libraries and partners to distribute thousands of books alongside other essentials to families facing food insecurity.

It said ‘kindness is what kept us fueled last year’.

The Sun Bookshop

Located in Yarraville, Victoria, The Sun Bookshop is tucked in the Sun Theatre building.

In 2020, The Sun Bookshop like its namesake, rose to the occasion. Putting its staff and customers safety-first, the staff got on their bicycles and got in the shop car to meet customer demand for local deliveries.

It refined its systems for telephone and online ordering, and made the best use of social media and publicised its website and online store. It took its bookclub online, partnered with an office block in the CBD to bring a bookclub to employees stuck at home – and used QR codes as part of their window displays to connect their customers to their staff picks when people couldn’t browse at the start of lockdown.

The store worked to make its online presence reflect the ‘true Sun Bookshop vibe and culture’ and used YouTube to speak directly from their staff’s lounge rooms to their customers. They moved their School Book Fairs online, made a short film for Love Your Bookshop Day and Zoomed.

The bookstore’s customers kept returning – and were often generous and appreciative; leaving presents or cute drawings for the staff after receiving deliveries. 

And that’s our shortlist of Bookstore of the Year for ABIA 2021!

The winner will be announced on 28 April 2021.