home       biography       publications       speeches       organisations       images       @contact

Opening Harry Hartog Bookstore

Opening Remarks at Harry Hartog Bookstore launch, Australian National University, Canberra, 16 July 2019

Ever since as a young philosophy student I was introduced to the proposition that there are two kinds of people in the world – those who wear nightcaps to bed and those who don't - I have always been very fond of grand binary generalisations.

Thus it was as a politician I liked talking about the ‘forces of light’ v the ‘forces of darkness’ (i.e. my own side and everyone else), and I loved Manning Clark’s sweeping division of policymakers between the ‘enlargers’ and the ‘straiteners’.

And while I’ve of course been obliged to concede that life is usually a little more nuanced than that, there is one grand binary generalization which, over a lifetime of close observation, I think still holds true: there are two kinds of bookshops in the world – those where you want to read almost everything, and those where you want to read almost nothing.

I don't think anyone could be in any doubt as to which side of that divide is occupied by Harry Hartog. You come to this campus with an established reputation as a fine independent bookseller, with a small chain of very high quality stores serving communities in 10 other locations in NSW, Queensland, SA and the ACT . And the evidence is now all around us here today that ANU has a great new bookshop, serving both the very specialist needs of multiple university disciplines, but also the very real generalist needs of both the university community and the wider Canberra community.

With the Kambri redevelopment of the old Union Court, we have created a vital new beating heart for the university – and now we have a vital bookshop taking its rightful place, as should be the case with every great university, at the heart of that heart. Kambri is already connected physically to the heart of the City, but with the new ANU Master Plan which will be published shortly, those connections will become ever more visible and accessible, making it ever more clear in the process that this bookstore is a great resource not only for this university but for the whole of Canberra.

It’s not very long ago that the disappearance of the traditional quality independent bookshop seemed a foregone conclusion. The online marketing giants – Amazon above all – seemed to be taking all the oxygen out of localized physical bookselling, and the advent of the e-book seemed to be making physical books themselves ever more dated artefacts of the past.

And for quite some time the evidence seemed to be clear that this is exactly what was happening. In the US and UK closures occurred on an alarming scale, not only for small local retailers but even quite significant-sized chains like Borders, and to some extent that experience was replicated in Australia, with chains like Angus and Robertson almost disappearing.

But over the last two or three years the wheel seems to have turned. Independents are still holding their own in Australia, with around 550 stores staying well and truly alive and the number slowly growing. That compares, on the latest figures I’ve seen, with around 900 in the UK and just 2,300 in the whole of the USA, showing us in per capita terms to be well ahead of the pack.

And the reason for all this is pretty obvious for those of us who love books. There is simply no substitute for the kind of personalized service you get from those who know and love their stock, in a setting in which you can browse and enjoy and loiter and be embraced at your leisure, and from time to time meet in person the authors you want to read.

And I think that most of us here would agree there are simply no physical substitutes not only for bookshoops but for books themselves. Yes, iPads and Kindles and all the rest can keep your luggage weight down when you are travelling. And yes, they do have some advantages, with their capacity for text magnification, for those like me whose eysesight is decaying as fast as the rest of our infrastructure.

But assemblages of metal, glass and plastic are just not the same. With real books, unlike bytes:

  • you can see and be surrounded by them on your shelves, like an army of old and new friends;
  • you can touch them;
  • you can smell them;
  • you can scribble in their margins and if you’re vandalistically inclined mark your place with dog ears;
  • you can actually read them in strong sunlight; and
  • when you drop them in the bath, you can not only avoid electrocution but can dry them out with a hairdryer.

I’m a book junkie and always will be. And it is in that spirit that I celebrate the arrival on this campus of a new family of book junkies in the Harry Hartog team. Long may you serve the ANU and wider Canberra community, and long may you prosper.