Gould’s Book Arcade

When people enter Gould’s Book Arcade on north King Street, Newtown, for the first time, they walk in a few steps then pause, beholding the complex interior. Like an M.C Escher puzzle, Gould’s is a maze of books, a million of them or more, extending back in rows for as far as the eye can see. There looks to be no end to the books, that they might stretch back to infinity. But Gould’s Book Arcade is at an end, at least in its current form. Its last day at its present location, where it has been for 29 years, is this Sunday. Then the moving and downsizing begins, as the store moves on to smaller premises at the south end of King Street.

A sign at the entrance announces that there’s a moving sale: 50% off. I pause, as I always do, to take in the scene of plenitude. I’m standing under the painted copy of the Diego Rivera mural, Man at the Crossroads, that hangs on a side wall. Rivera’s original mural had been painted in the lobby of the main building of the Rockerfeller Center in 1933, only to be destroyed, chipped off the wall for its communist themes, as Rivera refused to remove the portrait of Lenin.

The replica mural in Gould’s Books is a statement of intent: Bob Gould’s name is equally as connected with left-wing politics as bookselling. An entire wing of the store is stocked with political books with titles like Dynamics of World Revolution Today and Socialism and Survival. Although Bob Gould died in 2011, after a fall in the shop, his political legacy, and his bookstore, live on.

Gould’s has its own topography. The heights of the mezzanine level with its view over the landscape of shelves below; the gloomy recesses of the Australiana aisle, where I activate the torch on my phone to crawl around on the lowest levels, in search of 1970s Sydney photobooks; the narrow aisles of “serious fiction”; and the Cat Pathway at the back of the store, the only surface where there isn’t a stack of books, although the cat is no longer in residence.

In one of the many news articles that were published last year, when news of the store’s relocation was announced, the sad tale of the cat – run over – was revealed. The articles ran to the same theme, differently inflected depending on the political leanings of the newspaper. There is no longer space in gentrified Newtown for huge, rambling bookstores.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by Gould’s, even in its last days. The stock has only barely perceptibly thinned-out. I follow my usual route, down through the arts and crafts books, Introduction to Copper Tooling, How to Make Stained Glass Lampshades, then into the Feminist section, with its row of dark green Virago editions with bitten apples as their logos, then on through fiction, and upstairs, past the political books, to the very front corner. Here Karl Marx watches over me as I flip through the 80s-era posters of puppies, tall ships, and star signs (only Pisces and Sagittarius remain).

During a deep session in Gould’s, time seems to dissolve. It is many hours later when I emerge blinking back out on the street, and wait for the bus home under the red sign and the faded, peeling movie posters that have canopied the street for decades. The names of some can still be made out but most, by now, have worn away.

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9 Comments on “Gould’s Book Arcade”

  1. jim soulios says:

    Wow , thanks for posting another superb and well researched subject Vanessa . Present location after 29 years , double wow ! Still remember when Gould*s was originally on George Street in the CBD , opposite the Union Cinemas down from Hoyts Cinemas. Ventured in there many a time to browse through the haphazardly stacked books and comics ..often finding some very specific subject matter , as well as discarded half eaten hamburgers and left behind coke bottles. Purchased a few large posters at the time there which were in a large rack and also displayed on the walls and ceilings.. predominately of David Bowie as Ziggy and a WW2 Tiger2 tank on display in Belgium plus an underground comic ZAP comix #7. Did venture once or twice when in Newton with Bob still wearing suspenders but a different vibe in the store. Sad to read of his passing and now of the proposed move and downsizing. THANKYOU very much again Vanessa .

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks Jim, I’m so glad it brought back some memories, thank you for sharing them – although the store will continue trading in new premises it’s certainly the end of an era, for both the store itself and the days of secondhand book emporia!

  2. John Tipper says:

    I only visited Bob’s stores once in each location, and once was enough, I just couldn’t be bothered looking for anything amid the piles of rubbish. It was at the long-departed UNSW book fairs that I came to know Bob better. I was a volunteer for a number of years and as the youngest bloke, would be buttonholed by him and told to move cartons of books, usually without a word of thanks! That was his way and once you came more familiar with those ways, he became easier to deal with. In the early years when the fair occupied Unisearch House, Bob would sit at the rear while his team of eager student helpers would bring armfuls of books from specific tables. He’d rapidly glance at every title. Those he wanted would go into a pile. The ones he didn’t want would be disparagingly tossed aside. After a while, I learnt to steer clear of Bob until he’d departed the scene. At the end of each day, volunteers would be occupied returning the rejects to their correct tables. Bob must have contributed thousands of dollars to the UNSW over the decades.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks for commenting John, and sharing your stories. It reminds me that I remember seeing him at book fairs too, camped out amid boxes upon boxes of books. In its heyday the store could be quite perilous, with its teetering piles and boxes of books, although it was cleared out a lot after he passed away. What a Sydney character.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Reblogged this on Tasmanian Bibliophile @Large and commented:
    Another great post on one of my favourite blogs.

  4. suecartledge says:

    Thanks, Vanessa, for another of your magical mystery tours. Not that Gould’s Book Arcade was a mystery after my first bewildered attempt to find a specific volume. Living in Alpha House (please do a post on Alpha House!!), I walked past Gould’s almost daily on my way to & from Victoria Park .

    I’m forwarding this post to my son in Melbourne & my daughter in Boston. Both of them loved the Book Arcade (& Newtown in general) whenever they stayed with me. My son & his wife are great op-shoppers, & Gould’s offered them a new range of delights, as well as dusty fingers and snuffly sinuses.

    So sorry the Arcade must downsize & move south following Bob’s death. He’s sadly missed; his Book Arcade will be too. I hope its fame will follow it, & loyal browsers will trek all the way to opposite Alice St to the new premises.

    Re Alpha Hs: I was one of the first tenants in the newly refurbished & extended building when I moved there in 2003. To my delight, the apartment I rented was in the original building not the add-on.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks Sue and I’m glad you can share the story with your son and daughter, and that’s a good idea to write a story about Alpha House, I may be in touch if I do! So many interesting places in Sydney to investigate.

  5. Rosie says:

    Thank you for this excellent post on such an iconic part of Newtown, Vanessa. I look forward to Gould’s Books reopening once it moves, but its old location will be greatly missed. I am currently planning a short documentary about King Street, and I was lucky enough to be given permission from Natalie Gould herself to film some footage in the shop on its second-last day. Speaking of, I would really appreciate the chance to interview you on your experiences in Newtown. I tried to send you an inquiry with more detail using the “Contact” form on this blog, but I’m not completely sure if it sent through. Could you please check, and if it has been sent, let me know your thoughts?

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Hi Rosie, thanks and great to hear you were able to film the store before it closed. I did get your message and will reply soon!


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