By Elisabeth Wynhausen
There are too many cafes on Hall Street, Bondi, but there is one we couldn’t possibly do without. Not just the locals, either. The Gertrude and Alice Café Bookstore has so ardent a following some people cross Sydney in lumbering buses to get there. Halfway up Hall Street, behind a modest shopfront with ancient school desks, battered benches and a bedraggled bookcase parked outside, Gertrude and Alice seems to exist in a realm all its own, as if sequestered from the everyday world.
Past the pocket-size kitchen and the cash register is the first of three cosy rooms with more old benches and overflowing bookshelves from the floor to the ceiling. There are books everywhere, of course. Books are piled in corners. Books are arranged upright on the tables and straggle along the floor against the shelves. Books have tumbled into a little heap onto the burnt orange velvet sofa, the best seat in the house.
If you pause to pick out a handful for yourself before settling down with your Moroccan mint tea and fruit loaf, the sense of amplitude in the presence of twenty-five thousand books is infinitely multiplied by the serendipity of second-hand bookshops. Gertrude and Alice now stocks new books as well, but tucks them in together with all the rest, taking little away from the thrill of picking up books you didn’t even know you were looking for until you found them.
I’ve been dropping in since the place opened twelve years ago but it wasn’t until I sat down to talk with Jane Turner, who owns Gertrude and Alice, that I learned that the enticing muddle of books piled here and books piled there is contrived to appeal to customers. Confronted with shelves that are too tidy, “they won’t touch them,” Jane told me, the other day, confessing that she had agonised about the decision to supplement the second-hand books with new ones, like the $9.95 Penguin classics that mean no-one need ever again search her shelves high and low for a hard-to-find copy of Kerouac’s “On the Road”.
Boxes after box of the new books turned up last October. “I thought what have I done” said Jane, a fresh-faced, forthright woman of fifty often to be seen in Gertrude and Alice sitting on an upturned milk crate and frowning in concentration, because she is worrying about the business, while wondering where to fit the books in the box at her feet.
Events proved her right, however. It was a bumper Christmas. Whatever the trials of the book trade, in fact, Gertrude and Alice is usually packed out, as it has been almost since the opening, in premises further down the street. Jane, a Bondi local who had spent many years as a bookseller, had run into author Katerina Cosgrove, who had worked in cafes to support herself while writing.
Only briefly a partner in the business they conjured up between them (for she would soon be writing fulltime), Katerina has said they chose the name Gertrude and Alice because they were inspired by accounts of the cultural and literary life of Paris in the days Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas presided over one of the most famous salons in that city.
From the first Gertrude and Alice so completely filled the niche it had created that it was difficult to imagine the neighbourhood without it. Good food and good books combine two of the great pleasures of life and the new café bookstore combined them with such panache it promptly became a hip place to hang out.
The buzz about Gertrude and Alice never died down. But the original premises were larger by far. Writers who had worked on their manuscripts at one of the scarred tables came back there to launch their books. There were local music nights once a week. Then disaster struck. The building was to be redeveloped. In 2006 Jane was given notice. For a time it looked as if she would be forced to close. Shortly before the death knell, much to our relief, she found premises over the road from the Hakoah Club, a little further up the street, and fitted in what bookshelves she could, before the place filled up again.
People seem to like little better than sitting surrounded by books, whether or not they buy them. The question is if they will buy enough of them to ensure the future of this much loved local institution.
Tucked into the sofa the other day, taking cover behind a book boldly subtitled “The Sequel to Les Miserables” (though drafted a hundred and sixteen years after Victor Hugo breathed his last), I took stock. A woman read to a little girl who might have been five years old. A tall, gaunt, almost cadaverous man with furrowed cheeks sat bent over his book in seeming absorption as the woman seated across the table from him gave her companion strenous advice about his love life. No books were involved. The other customers I could see were busy with their mobiles and laptops.
All had had something to eat or drink, of course. Though the menu was more extensive in the other premises, where there was more space to cook, it is impossible not to marvel at the culinary feats the Gertrude and Alice staff carry off in a space barely large enough to swing a saucepan. Indeed the café has sustained the rest of the business when times are tough, and times have seldom been tougher for people in the book trade than they were last year, when the other bookshop in Hall Street closed down.
But Jane isn’t one to give up. She secured an alcohol licence and brought in the new books. Long an active participant in the neighbourhood’s cultural life, she went one step further, and became a sponsor of ‘The Nib’ Waverley Library Award for Literature.
Outside Gertrude and Alice one day, she turned to look across the street. What used to be the Hakoah Club is buried under a huge building still hidden behind hoardings. Construction of the eight-story apartment complex has been a nightmare for those who live or work close by; now they’re worrying what will happen the building is finished and people are moving in. Not Jane Turner, who had heard there would be a hundred and thirty-two serviced apartments in the complex.
Briefly picturing the hundreds of people emerging from the building to check out the café bookstore on the other side of the street, she gave the ghost of a grin. “It might be our salvation,” she said.
Postscript: But if I’ve persuaded you to go and pick up some books while sampling something delicious, think twice about going today. There’s only a barista there. Jane has taken the staff for a short vacation in the country to thank them for all their hard work over Christmas. They’ll be back tomorrow.