My co-editor (on the Bawdy Songbooks of the Romantic Period project), and a colleague of mine at Monash, Paul Watt, went to Clunes for the "Back to Booktown" event on Saturday (1 May 2010; details here).
It is one of those events that I have been meaning to go to for ages. Having had—for a while at least—a toe in "the Trade" in Melbourne I have known many people who have gone, either to trade or buy, and being a collector myself it is only natural that I should be curious on what I am missing out on, or if I am actually missing out on anything at all. (My experience of the Victorian Book Lovers Trail was rather mixed.)
Of course, since I had the pleasure of hearing Paul McShane speak on The International Book Town Experience last December (at a Melbourne Bibliographical Circle event), I have been even more interested in checking out the local "Book Town Experience" for myself.
But, since I missed it again, I asked Paul to put a few thoughts in writing for me to post here. Perhaps I will be able to write something myself next year! But this is what Paul had to say:
The blurb promised much: "the biggest collection of rare, out-of-print and second-hand books in Australia" but this event fell short of the hype. While a small number of traders of rare and antiquarian books had set up camp, a large chunk of store-holders were selling merely old and dusty books, sometimes damaged and soiled and only fit for the recycle bin or bonfire.
Only a few of tents and shops full of books piqued my interest; one of them being, I think, a well-known Melbourne bookshop selling remainders, since many of its wares looked similar to the stock in their Northcote shop, which I visited recently. Another tent of books sold hard-to-procure reference works and literary and history monographs from the major university presses. Their stock was unmistakably rare, in excellent condition and very competitively priced.
"Back to Booktown" included talks by authors, academics and writers, which leant a sense of a "literary festival" to the event but I found this addition contrived. On the other hand, the "Punch and Judy" show and the entertainment provided by the Creswick Brass Band seemed more relevant and interesting to the event’s relaxed and informal atmosphere.
The organisers of Back to Booktown need to make more of an effort to position the weekend as a genuine event for "rare, out-of-print and second-hand books in Australia" (as advertised) because at the moment the "second-hand" aspect is vastly over-represented. To be blunt, there was just too much junk masquerading as old and worthy books.
I also think the event can stand on its own without talks by authors, writers and publishers. "Back to Booktown" might also include vendors of maps, prints and paper and add more stalls that sell bookends, paper-weights and other novelties. While there were a few stalls selling such items, there is certainly room for more book-related trade, without the event becoming a gimmick.
Dr Paul Watt, School of Music, Monash University