Interview with a Bookstore: Riverbend Books
In Which an Australian Almost Kills Maisy the Mouse
Riverbend Books was opened in 1998 by Suzy Wilson, and has since become one of Australia’s leading independent bookstores. Suzy had “a conviction that bookstores and all the ideas, imagination and thinking that they contain within their walls make them a necessary part of the civilized world.” The name Riverbend harkens back to the early days in Bulimba when Indigenous Australians called the area Tugulawah, which translates as Riverbend.
The store is on the corner of Oxford Street, a de facto hub of its micro village in South-East Brisbane, heavily involved with the local community, particularly with the schools in the area. “Fostering a culture of reading in the area is essential to our philosophy.”
In 2004, Suzy began a local fundraising campaign to support literacy in remote Indigenous communities where literacy levels are very low; it has since developed into the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. The ILF is a national project of the Australian Book Industry that aims to develop literacy skills in remote communities and provide the resources for sustainable education. In 2014, Suzy was nominated for Australian of the Year in the Local Hero category for her work with the ILF.
What is your favorite section of the store?
Suzy (owner): Our Essays and Culture section always has fascinating reads in it, and our Short Stories section has given us the opportunity to showcase some really amazing work, particularly by Australian writers.
What would you do if you had infinite space in the store?
Suzy: Honestly, a lot. Our kids section is usually way overstocked, we could definitely use more space for literary fiction, and we barely have enough space for science and history. Also, we could probably use some bunk beds, as one of our staff members lives about two hours away, and maybe a beer garden for good measure.
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
Suzy: One of the things we’re proudest of is our engagement with the community. We’re the home of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, which began here in 2004. We run 17 book clubs, work closely with schools on our Standing Orders Program, and this year launched the Riverbend Readers Boot Camp, a fundraising initiative and reading challenge for our local community. Essentially, we encourage people to engage with high quality literature in a way that’s accessible and friendly.
Who is your favorite regular?
Suzy: I think every staff member has a different one. One customer, Pauline Crowe, has been coming here since we’ve opened and is just lovely. There are even a few people who came here when they were kids who bring kids of their own now! And we love our younger readers, like six-year-old Charlotte, who wrote us an amazing note about how she wanted to work here. We’ve been getting those kids to do online reviews and they’re fantastic.
What’s the craziest situation you’ve encountered?
Suzy: One time when I was reading to a group of kids I had one of the staff dress up as Maisy the Mouse. We get really into our re-enactments. At some point in the story I had to cover Maisy’s mouth, not realizing that I was cutting off the flow of oxygen inside Nick’s mask. I just kept laughing and reading this story and then eventually he passed out. We’ve had excellent occupational health and safety coverage since.
What’s your earliest/best memory of visiting a bookstore as a child?
Suzy: Oddly enough, my earliest memories of being in a bookstore aren’t until much later, when I was 19 and traveling in Greece. There weren’t many bookstores in Brisbane growing up and I always borrowed from the library. I remember buying so many books there that were formative to my reading—Quentin Crisp, Simone de Beauvoir, Cavafy—and realizing how much I loved those places.
Myles (media manager): I’m sure it wasn’t my first, but I very clearly remember faking an injury to get out of cricket so I could buy the fifth Harry Potter book when it came out. I don’t think I convinced anyone, but I’m an appalling cricketer so they let me go.
If you weren't running a bookstore, what would you be doing?
Suzy: I think there are a few other things we’re interested in as a collective. I’d probably be more involved with the day-to-day of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation or work in remote communities. Some of the others, like Vicky and Jen, have separate craft business of their own.
Myles: I used to work as a Spiderman impersonator at children’s birthday parties, and seeing as my other source of income is writing I’d probably be back to doing that. Alex and I sing a lot in the shop, so I could suggest starting an off key Fleetwood Mac covers band, but he’s actually very talented so I feel he’d very quickly end up going solo.
What’s been your biggest surprise about working in a bookstore?
Suzy: As counterintuitive as it sounds, it’s expecting people to pay money for books. I keep forgetting we can’t give them away for free.
SLIDESHOW: Riverbend Books Staff Recommendations