Being a bookseller and shop manager at Australia’s largest bookstore in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s was a wonderful experience. The Paris riots of 1968, the Counter Culture and anti Vietnam war movements and the fight against literary censorship were all defining moments which fed the new revolutionary and exciting bohemian lifestyle of both Melbourne and Sydney.
Through all of this was threaded the private and personal lives of fellow workers, artists, writers and performers who gravitated to bookstores which at that time – pre internet – were the only real sources of new ideas and cultural change.
My role as manager required me to hold books which might be considered outside the guidelines of accepted censorship standards, in the locked safe in my office.
Two members of staff of the Australian Literature Board would visit us fortnightly at which time I would remove the books from the safe so that they could examine them and declare their suitability or otherwise for consumption by the public. If a title did not already appear on the ALB list of banned books but was regarded as suspect, we would be given a receipt and the book taken for a proper assessment.
If later we were told that the book was to be banned, we would be given the option of having it destroyed in a furnace or the opportunity to return the book to its publisher for a credit refund. If we chose the latter course (usually if we had imported a quantity) the agency would send someone with their copy of the book to witness our packing of the parcel and making sure the quantities equaled the number shown on the original invoice, then that representative would accompany one of our staff members to the post office to witness the parcels despatch.
Most often we had only single copies and we chose to let them burn the book. Occasionally, if the book was quite expensive we would request permission to return it to its overseas publisher. A title I recall doing this with was the 1966 book Fille de Joie: the Book of Courtesans which, by the way, is still available. You can buy a copy here on Amazon.
An important event in the world of publishing and bookselling happened in 1965, when W. H. Smith (the largest single book retailer in Great Britain) announced its plans to move to a computerized warehouse in 1967 and wanted a standard numbering system for books it carried. They hired consultants to work on behalf of their interest. They devised the Standard Book Numbering (SBN) system in 1966 and it was implemented in 1967. This was to change bookselling forever. It took a long time for the numbering system to reach a level of day to day effectiveness but eventually, after many years, booksellers were able to enjoy the benefits. Having every book title with its own identifying number could be likened to the much later invention of search engines on the internet. Computerised stock control was at last available to bookshops.
Peoples private lives were becoming less private. Inner-city bookshop staff were most often a happy mix of gay and bisexual and straight younger folk. Pushing boundaries in all areas became the mantra of post-war baby boomers, and eventually in Sydney in the winter of 1978, a group of people got together to celebrate International Gay Celebrations giving birth to the now world famous Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras.
This era witnessed the new and growing ethos of various eastern philosophies and West Coast mindfulness. On the one hand, California had set the benchmark for a new style of living while London, Paris and New York continued to fire Australia’s thirst for new thinking in writing and art generally.
Finally, I should express my gratitude to those small but great book publishers who risked much to bring us important books. Among these I should like to mention Grove Press, so important in that early period in helping some Australians discover that not all the world was a darkened room.
Grove Press from Wikipedia:
Rejecting conventional notions of obscenity and morality, Grove gained a reputation as a controversial publisher committed to fighting censorship as it published some of the most well-known banned books.
In 1959, Grove Press published an unexpurgated version of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The U.S. Post Office Department confiscated copies sent through the mail. Rosset sued the New York city postmaster and his Lawyer Charles Rembar won in New York, and then on federal appeal.
The defining movements of the 1960s in America–the antiwar, civil rights, black power, counterculture, and student movements in the United States–along with revolutions across the globe, were debated, exposed, and discussed in Grove’s publications as was the sexual revolution. Grove’s books challenged prevailing attitudes about sex through dozens of erotic books, many by “anonymous” authors; introduced the layperson to new directions in psychology through Eric Berne’s Games People Play; and gave voice to revolutionaries around the world, including Che Guevara and Malcolm X. They published works by Frantz Fanon and Régis Debray, and numerous books opposing the Vietnam war and the draft.