This year marks The Bookshop Darlinghurst’s 30th year in business, but as owner Les McDonald told the Star Observer, celebrations for the milestone have been somewhat muted thus far, given the iconic gay and lesbian bookstore’s increasingly precarious position.
“The last few years have been the toughest I can remember,” he said.
“That’s due to online trading and what have you, but also because Oxford St is no longer the vibrant hub it once was. We’re managing, but it’s been very tough – we’re all working longer and harder.”
The Bookshop opened in 1982 after McDonald and then partner Wayne Harrison decided to extend their successful mail order business – “It’d taken over our whole house” – into a shopfront.
Initially based in Crown St, the store moved into its familiar Oxford St premises in 1984.
Since then, they’ve watched as specialty and LGBTI bookstores around the world have flourished and, more recently, died out – take Sydney’s own Feminist Bookshop, which abruptly ceased trading late last year.
McDonald said he and his team, including store buyer/manager and accomplished author Graeme Aitken, were conscious of keeping prices down in the face of competition from international bookselling goliaths like Amazon and Book Depository.
But a singular focus on price, he said, ignored the fact The Bookshop is just as much a drop-in centre, a social hub and a lifeline as it is a place to buy books.
“We have customers who come in at the same time on the same day every week – they buy things, but they’re also here for a chat, a gossip, to hear what’s going on in the scene,” McDonald said.
“People meet here before they go out to dinner or the bars on Oxford St; we have parents of young kids who’ve just come out in here looking for books, and the kids themselves. We’re much more than just a retail store, I think.”
McDonald and co plan to organise a few special 30th anniversary events in the second half of the year, and he hopes a recently negotiated rent reduction would help to ease the financial pain.
“We’ve been here a long time, so I’ve probably already bought the place a couple of times over in rent,” he joked.