April’s International Bookshop of the Month – Abbey’s Bookshop in Sydney, Australia

Sydney’s much-loved indie bookshop since 1968, Abbey’s Bookshop is a self-professed “Aladdin’s cave” for visitors. We spoke to its Marketing Manager, Craig Kirchner, to find out more about this iconic Australian independent and the distinctive book collection they have curated over the years!

1. How would you describe Abbey’s to a first-time visitor to Sydney?

The sign at our shop entrance welcomes the ‘Adventurous Reader’ and declares Abbey’s as “an Aladdin’s cave for readers”. Within minutes of browsing our densely packed shelves, the first-time visitor will have spotted an intriguing book they haven’t seen elsewhere on some topic they have an interest in – or have just discovered an interest in! Abbey’s is so much more than just the latest new releases. Digging into the back catalogues of writers and discovering the links between topics is exactly what our customers love about Abbey’s – it’s a place where connections are explored and reading trails can be followed – where ideas grow. We’re always helping customers track down titles they may have heard about on their particular reading journey.

Our customers are life-long learners and knowledge-seekers. Our long-standing customers often express our place in their lives with heart-warming comments like this one, received recently: “Yours is the best shop of its kind in the country so please keep going.” This gives you an idea of the passion we bring to the world of books and the place we hold in our customers’ book-reading lives. The entries from customers and staff in our commemorative booklet, 40 Memories – compiled in 2008 for our 40th anniversary (we’re now 54!) – make fascinating reading. It was another time and place as Eve Abbey observed: “I even remember using price stickers that were colour-coded so we knew how long books had been on the shelf!”

A message to readers everywhere from Eve Abbey: “We’ve enjoyed selling books to lovers of reading for over 50 years. Personal service is the key to all that we do, and it is the reason we’re one of Australia’s most loved bookstores. We warmly invite you to join us.”

2. What makes Abbey’s Bookshop unique and how has this changed over the years of trading?

“The opening of Abbey’s was the opening of an era. I returned to Australia to find that Abbey’s was the place that all the writers were talking about,” said Michael Wilding, writer and academic (Emeritus Professor in English and Australian Literature at the University of Sydney).

It was 1968 when Eve & Ron Abbey founded Abbey’s Bookshop, having emigrated from England, where Ron had worked at Foyles and formed friendships with industry innovators such as (Sir) Allen Lane. From that time on, our booksellers have been curating a distinctive collection sourced from publishers large and small, and academic presses from around the world – such as our extensive Yale University Press online catalogue and in-store collection.

Abbey’s has remained a family business, with son Alan Abbey now running the business with a loyal staff of long-serving members – the longest being 36 years! In 1986, the store moved to 131 York Street in the heart of Sydney (right next to the Queen Victoria Building) and has become an iconic Sydney independent bookstore known for its specialisations in history, science and crime fiction – but, of course, we cover the full range of categories. We’ve also brought our Language Book Centre and GALAXY Science Fiction & Fantasy stores under the one roof, so we cater to all leisure and learning interests in one location.

3. With the challenges brought about by the Covid pandemic, how has the bookshop fared and what have you done differently?

Well, we were very fortunate with the timing of our website’s modular redesign in late 2018. When the physical doors temporarily closed during lockdown in 2020 it put a rocket under the need to make our store’s catalogue as browsable online as possible. We dramatically expanded our site navigation by constructing showcase pages for the areas that cover 90% of the store offering. Pages such as History Herald, Crime Alley and Science Central (among others) gather together current and recent month’s highlights, special collections, spotlights, authors and easy-to-browse lists of sub-categories, e.g. Medieval European Archaeology.

But this dramatic turnabout from being ‘a store with an ecommerce website’ to ‘an ecommerce website with a store’ also brought with it a cultural change that was felt keenly by both our staff and many of our older customers are not digital natives and preferred their regular visits to the shop – as did we, for what is a bookshop without people flipping through pages and reading back covers?

With the pandemic moving towards endemic, we’re now straddling both worlds with a little more ease. The online store continues to evolve with new technologies, integrations and enhancements coming through the pipeline. Our now greatly expanded customer base allows us to spread the word further about all the new titles coming through. And the store staff are back helping customers find the books they’re after, as we’ve always done in the past.

4. You seem to have a lot of authors visiting the bookshop. Do you hold ‘in-person’ author readings or events?

The Authors at Abbey’s program is one of the most enjoyable parts of working at Abbey’s. Being right in the centre of the city, we get a steady stream of authors calling in and joining the ranks of authors (including some Booker Prize and Miles Franklin Award winners) who have stood on the Abbey’s Author Star for their photo. We then have them speak a little about their book in a video that we share across our social media, eNews and website. It gives great exposure and gets a lot of attention.

We don’t currently have an events program because we have no space! Having consolidated three stores into one, every inch of the store is taken up with bays of bookshelves. However, we believe events bring a much needed intellectual energy into the cultural landscape and it’s something we’d like to do and are looking at ways to do so in the near future.

5. Could you tell us something about your favourite Yale University Press title?

Let me first tell you about the demand from our customers for a few titles that may give you some insight into the Abbey’s customer. Two titles exploring religious history – Going to Church in Medieval England by Nicholas Orme and The Dissolution of the Monasteries by James Clark – were eagerly sought even before their arrival into store. Espionage, both in fiction and non-fiction, always draws a crowd at Abbey’s and so it was with two titles by Helen Fry – Spymaster: The Man who Saved MI6, and MI9: A History of the Secret Service for Escape and Evasion in World War Two.

On a personal front, I am fascinated by the intellectual challenge of understanding the true nature of time (what exactly is time?) and how it relates to a ‘theory of Everything’. I have a hawk’s eye for anything on the topic such as Reimagining Time: A Light-Speed Tour of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity by Tanya & Jeffrey Bub, which brings an illustrative approach to help the reader get their head around mind-bending concepts.

To learn more about Abbey’s Bookshop, you can visit their website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or YouTube channel, or pop into their shop in Sydney!

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