Gertrude & Alice
In this special series, Sydney Writers' Festival speaks with bookshops across Australia about the special place they hold in our bookworm hearts. From recommendations on your next great read to their favourite memories in a bookshop, hear from the people many of us trust the most.
This edition, we speak to bookseller Jane Turner, owner of Gertrude & Alice at Bondi Beach.
What do you love most about your bookshop?
We have been in business for 20 years now and I have loved watching people develop a love of reading. We read to the little ones and after starting school they come and practise their reading on us. Many adults who weren’t readers but cafe customers have started reading and they credit G&A with their newfound passion and love of reading. That makes me proud.
What purpose do you feel a bookshop serves in the community?
It's the hub of a community. We call ourselves a community cafe bookstore because our community is everything to us. We see them every day. We celebrate milestones. We are normally open 15 hours a day, 7 days a week, so we are the home away from home for many who live on their own or work from home.
We call ourselves a community cafe bookstore because our community is everything to us…we are the home away from home for many who live on their own or work from home.
What is your favourite moment or memory in a bookshop?
A young woman was searching for a childhood book that she was determined to discover in a bookshop and not buy online. When she found the book in our shop she was truly overcome and there were lots of tears that day. It was 10 years ago now and that memory has stayed with me.
What do you get asked about most by customers?
How many books are in the shop? How many books do you read a week? Is this a library? Are these books for sale? Are you Gertrude or Alice?
What book has made the greatest impact on you?
Tough question as there are so many. I'd have to say A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I read it in three days, wept and worried about the characters. I still worry over them. No book has had such a powerful or emotional effect on me.
What is the best book you’ve read recently?
I truly loved Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. I hadn't read one of his books before and will now read everything he has ever written. Beautiful writing.
We hand-wrote thank you letters for every online order. It wasn't much but it was all that we could afford to do to let our customers know how much we appreciated them.
What is the most surprising thing about your job?
Probably how many people have never read a book. Lots of cafe customers tell us they aren’t readers and the sheer number of those people amazes me.
What children’s book do you think adults should read?
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein is a favourite of mine. I’ve read quite a few of the Treehouse series by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton. A fellow bookseller, Clayton Zane Comber, has just written 100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze. This heartfelt book crosses generations; my 85-year-old mum just bought it for all her friends.
How did you navigate through lockdown?
We have had to diversify in so many ways. We built an online store (we had zero online presence), we delivered books, curated book packs and reading lists, created take-home meal menus for the cafe and worked out how to sell books through a window at the front of our cafe. So much of this was done by text message, emails and social media. We hand-wrote thank you letters for every online order. It wasn't much but it was all that we could afford to do to let our customers know how much we appreciated them.
We had support from lots of authors who signed boxes of their books and ran social media campaigns to help us. Markus Zusak (Bridge of Clay) has saved us in this way many times over the last 18 months. Sarah Wilson (This One Wild and Precious Life), Stella Prize–winning journalist Jess Hill (See What You Made Me Do), cookbook author Lucy Tweed (Every Night of the Week) and entrepreneur/influencer FlexMami (aka Lillian Ahenkan) have all signed books for us. Even Malcolm Turnbull signed 200 copies of A Bigger Picture for us. We won’t ever forget that support as it has made a huge difference to us. We are lucky booksellers.
We won’t ever forget that support as it has made a huge difference to us. We are lucky booksellers.