Interview with a Bookstore: Readings
Dedicated to Showcasing the Best in Australian Literature
Readings first opened in 1969, and it was a partnership of three–Ross Reading, his wife Dorothy Reading, and Peter Reid. At the time, Australia had a very small local publishing industry and most books came from overseas, as Australia was regarded as part of the British Commonwealth via UK publishers. The Readings owners saw an opportunity to bypass the UK gatekeepers and import these new books directly from wholesalers. In 1976, Ross Reading retired and sold the business to Mark Rubbo, Greg Young and Steve Smith, who owned several record stores in Melbourne. Rubbo, Young and Smith continued running the Carlton shop, and rebadged their record shops as Readings stores as well, adding books to the mix. Business boomed through the 80s and 90s, and Rubbo became Managing Director of Readings, eventually receiving a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for service to the community through fostering an awareness of Australian literature as a bookseller.
Readings now has five stores around Melbourne, plus a growing e-commerce business, and will be opening a sixth store later this year. It produces the Readings Monthly, a print newsletter featuring staff reviews, features and interviews, which has over 15,000 subscribers. Readings is involved with more than 300 events per year, with over 200 of those held in its shops. It runs a charitable arm, administers two awards for early-career Australian writers, has a very active online presence, and, of course, it sells lots and lots of books.
What's your favorite section of the store?
Mark Rubbo (managing director): I love our Australian sections—literature and non-fiction. I also have a secret passion for remainders.
If you had infinite space what would you add?
Mark: More books!
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
Mark: I think we have a clear vision and execute that really well. Everything we do is driven by our passion for Australian literature and supporting Australian authors—be it the merchandising in our stores, the features in the Readings Monthly, the focus of our online marketing or our extensive events program. Our two most recent initiatives are the establishment of a charitable arm, The Readings Foundation, which supports literacy and the arts, and the creation of two awards for early-career Australian authors—The Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction and The Readings Children’s Book Prize. We sold 2,000 copies of last year’s winner of our Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop; the publisher had to reprint because of our award.
Who's your favorite regular?
Mark: A woman who works for our Department of Justice; she used to be the Sheriff of Melbourne which was pretty interesting. She comes in most weeks, buys many books, is charming and lovely to staff, tells us how great we are and has very good taste—doesn’t get better than that!
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
Mark: Shoplifting is something most booksellers don’t like to talk about—I reckon I’ve had $4 million stolen that way in my 40 years bookselling—goodness the things we could have done with that! Sadly we don’t catch that many, but one day a gentleman left the store with a very full bag and set off the alarm. I approached him and asked him if I could look in the bag. “No.” He didn’t have time as he had an appointment to keep. “Fine,” I said. “It’s lovely day, do you mind if I walk with you?” He grunted and we set off down the street, with me trying to make conversation. After about two blocks, he put his bag on the pavement and said “I have to go now.”
What’s your earliest/best memory about visiting a bookstore as a child?
Mark: I remember visiting Cheshires in Little Collins Street in Melbourne; it was a basement full of books and erudite booksellers. They also had this cool system of making transactions. When you bought something your money was put into a canister that was flung across the room on wires to the cashier who’d make the change and send it back to the salesperson—I loved that!
If you weren’t running or working at a bookstore, what would you be doing?
Mark: Not sure—at university I started studying medicine—maybe that?
What’s been the biggest surprise about running a bookstore?
Mark: It is all consuming but so rewarding. In Australia, at least, we have a wonderful industry and wonderful colleagues—be it writers, publishers or booksellers.
SLIDESHOW: Readings Staff Recommendations