“Carlton’s closing down.” The word went around the Twitter/Facebook/email/carrier pigeon sphere a couple of weeks ago. Everyone who got it knew what it meant. The Carlton second-hand bookshop, on Grattan Street, just near Melbourne University, was finally giving up the ghost — its windows announced a closing-down sale, with 50% off everything. For dedicated bibliophiles, the chance of picking up a few bargains barely made up for the greater tragedy — that what was once the doyen of Melbourne second-hand bookshops, a two-storey Victorian terrace that could barely contain tens of thousands of volumes on everything from zymurgy to aardwolfs, could no longer survive, right on the doorstep of a major university.

For some — and I’m one of them — this will be a bitter blow. These days, one practices a kind of triage with regard to, well, everything. DVD rental stores? Nearly gone. Music stores? Having a mini-vinyl revival, but the standard suburban record store is becoming a thing of the past. Ditto the independent first-run bookstore, the single-screen arthouse cinema, the printed quality newspaper, and on and on. Second-hand bookshops started falling away a bit later than new bookstores, but when they went, they went fast. There was a half dozen of them in the CBD or nearby a decade ago, and five more in Carlton. The Carlton is the last of them. Grub Street in Fitzroy remains, as do a few up Sydney Road, Brunswick, and Smith Street, Collingwood. It’s the same in Sydney, less so further afield. But it will happen everywhere.

Many will say “of course” to that, the digital revolution and all, but it’s a little more complicated than that. First-run bookshops were always going to be captured by the Amazons and put on the kindling, but there’s less obvious reason why second-hand bookshops should be. Second-hand bookstores were once nice little earners — stock bought for peanuts, with an infinite shelf-life and a powerful on-selling effect: go into a second-hand bookshop to get something on penguins, and you emerge with an armful of quantum mechanics, a biography of Lee Remick, an Arnold Bennett omnibus, and Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico. It is nearly impossible to restrain your purchasing. With one ageing perpetual student on the desk and low levels of shoplifting — since your customers feel bonded to the shop — it’s sweet.

But such a business model relied not merely on a lack of competition from Amazon, Google Books or Abebooks, the vast online second-hand retailer in which near anything can be found. It depends also on a very specific culture of books, an acceptance, a willingness to encounter randomness, new vistas of knowledge and possibility, provided simply by the conjunction of a series of titles on the one shelf.

For all the improved on-screen environments of tablets, the most impressive scoping technology remains the human eye on a stalk-like device (technical term: neck) in a room of books. It’s one reason why early online retailers experimented with holograms, to create shop-like environments — and also why they were so utterly unsuccessful. Great shops — bouquinistes or otherwise — are places where you submerge yourself, and where the real book, and its traces through history, its dog-ears and foxing, is as much a part of the meaning as the text itself. That culture may be the one that is passing away, and the bookshops with it.

John Sainsbury, the Carlton’s owner, who is consolidating all his stock in his other shop, in Camberwell, noted to me ruefully that the Carlton, once upon a time, could support huge sections on philosophy, Marxism, psychoanalysis, the big beasts of the 20th century. “Now,” he said, “that’s where the cookbooks are”. The students who formed the clientele for those sections — places where you could fill out your knowledge, get a mental map, simply by reading a lot of first chapters, leaning against a shelf — have largely gone. They’re doing their hunting online, following different interconnections, different ways of pursuing culture laterally.

Of course, of course, but is it also possible that there are fewer of them? Not because those damn kids, etc, but because the corporatisation of education, the flattening out of the contemporary world and its political possibilities, and the rise of different post-book forms of discourse — gah, TED talks — have created a significant shift in intellectual cultures, of which the collapse of the second-hand bookshop is a symptom? There is something almost impossibly intimate about a second-hand book — who’s handled it, whose annotated it, old styles of binding and cover — that it may not fit in with a world in which text has been separated from physicality and is changing its meaning and form, for better and worse.

Luddism and nostalgia disguised as social critique is to be avoided. Get that wrong, and the next thing you know, you’re building a printing plant in Tullamarine. But it is also possible to miss the passing of things that indicate the passing of things we would want to hang onto — and recall the words of Gregory of Tours in The History of the Franks, who notes sadly, from the post-Roman sixth century, that “many people cannot read now, and it is being forgotten”, a voice from the dawn of the Dark Ages.

And even though, as The Myth of the Dark Ages asserts, that periodisation is no longer as easy as it once was, Tours’ words survive as warning. Both books got at second-hand stores. Neither, was I looking for. Some annotations, slightly foxed. Is that world going? It is simultaneously nothing to worry about, and terrifying.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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