More than just a bookshop owner, Fiona Stager has become a sort of godly figure on the Queensland literary landscape. If she hires you, you’re a good writer. If she reads your work and recommends you to her friends, you’re a good writer. Her presence opens up doors, as demonstrated by her staff of crazy-talented and hardworking writers, including Krissy Kneen and Michelle Law. She lectures at the University of Queensland about the publishing industry. Everyone wants to launch their book at her store. Everyone wants to chat to her about what she thinks about writing. She’s kind of like Regina George from Mean Girls; I’m sure lots of people want to be her. Except she’s lovely and instead of making me feel inferior she buys me a coffee.
I begin by asking her what she thinks makes a good book, partly because I want to know how to get published and partly because I want her to recommend good books she’s read. “These days I do read a lot more fiction, a lot more new release fiction,” she says. “Just because we’re so fiction driven here and what we find is that people have a fair idea of what they want for non-fiction, but with fiction they need more of a hand, more guidance.”
It seems the book market is becoming flooded with books and every second cricketer is writing a memoir. So does Fiona think the quality of writing is dropping or diversifying?
“I don’t think it’s dropping,” she says. “I’m talking about [traditionally] published books (not ebooks or self-published). It’s much more diversified now, there’s more from younger voices, older voices, more points of view, people of colour. I think it’s a pretty good place.”
I ask whether she thinks that’s where audiences are heading, towards fiction or leaning towards those cricketer memoirs. According to Fiona, sixty percent of sales in indie bookshops are actually non-fiction: “It’s such a big category, there’s everything from travel to cookbooks.” And what about local versus international authors, does she favour either one? Fiona says she doesn’t need to push customers towards local Queensland authors, because they stand on their own: “we’ve always supported good writers, whether they’re Queensland or international. We sell a huge amount of Queensland writers because they’re really good, not necessarily just because they’re Queensland writers.”
Fiona has some of the best of Queensland’s writers working for her at Avid Reader. While Fiona and I sit in the café (my latte has come and it is damn good) award-winning poet and author Krissy Keen sits nearby, organizing events. Michelle Law, author of Sh*t Asian Mothers Say and regular contributor to literary magazines such as The Lifted Brow and Frankie, is often behind the counter. Fiona says, “I think it does authors a world of good having other jobs and being stimulated outside of their writing.”
This is something I can relate to. I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book Big Magic. Gilbert talks about supporting your writing instead of demanding it to support you. Writing as a career isn’t always the highest paying job at the high school reunion. Stimulation outside of an at-home writing environment can be inspiring for authors. But what is it like being a writer and working in a book shop?
“It can be quite hard to be an author and work in a bookshop as well,” says Fiona. “It informs them greatly, it makes them better authors because it helps them to understand the industry.” I look over to the counter and see a man scanning books and typing quickly on the register. The man is Trent Jamieson, a speculative-fiction author published by Orbit books, Angry Robot, and Text Publishing. “It can be hard though, Trent’s got to return his own book.”
In an interview with Michelle Law, I asked if writers needed to be multi-talented these days. Michelle writes fiction, non-fiction, screenwriting, and works at Avid. These days writers are needing to diversify their skills, and I ask Fiona if book stores are having to do the same in a digital world. How does Avid stay alive when a lot of people are reading on Kindles these days?
“We do it through a very strong events program,” Fiona says. “And by creating an environment that people want to come into and be a part of.” Although people are reading on e-readers and online, there is still a demand for the physical printed edition of a book. “A lot of people are choosing to read real books and that’s across ages from little kids right through to adults.” Fiona says a lot of people will read a mixture, but when she asks in lectures how many students are reading e-books very few hands are raised.
According to Fiona, even young digital natives are reading paper books. Recently, Avid Reader expanded and opened a kid’s bookstore next door called Where The Wild Things Are. This is the key to Avid’s success as a brick-and-mortar bookshop. When the market is flooded with online and chain bookstores slowly pushing out indie shops, Avid stays relevant.
“We’re very entrenched in the West End community,” Fiona says. As someone who also lives in West End, I know that Avid is more than a bookstore. Locals will avoid going to chain bookstores if they can get their books at Avid, much like us West Enders avoid the chain supermarkets and instead shop at the Saturday markets or the Greek fruit and vegetable shop. Avid is a part of the West End community, and even the wider Brisbane community. It has become a literary experience rather than just retail. To Fiona, this is how Avid Reader has survived and will continue to survive as an indie bookstore.
If you walk into a department store and buy Sh*t Asian Mothers Say, chances are the woman who wrote it isn’t going to serve you. But at Avid, she probably will, so it’s a pretty good place to be.
Visit Avid Reader at 193 Boundary Street, West End QLD 4101. Or visit the Avid online store here.
TJ Wilkshire is a twenty-something Brisbane based artist and writer. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and English Literature and is currently studying the WEP Masters at the University of Queensland. Her work focuses on birds and she hopes to one-day turn into one. Wilkshire’s poetry has been published in Peril and Uneven Floor, and won the NotJack Competition.