Berkelouw announces itself confidently. BOOKS in large letters, it’s on a huge street sign, and in case you still missed it, three floors of glass windows are as subtle as a red light in touting the wares within. Once inside it’s bright and busy and crammed. Almost cramped, but not quite. Occupying their predictable spot at the entrance are the prize-winners (read Booker) and all the new releases and recent arrivals. A few unusual additions are usually hidden amongst them, so it’s always worth a dig. Past the front desk -which boasts an impressive display of humorous cards and books, there lie the rows of fiction, history, biography, pop-science, self-help, fantasy etc etc. Peppered amongst these are recommendations and ‘sound bite’ reviews. Some are brilliant and insightful, though most repeat the sycophants off the back sleeve. A real shame given how helpful the staff are – My advice? Just ask one of them!
Ladders and tables bedecked with the picks of the week invite you further in- recently Art took centre stage, but today it was cooking. Opposite the counter there’s a Wall of greeting cards, including the brilliantly witty Able and Game range. Along from here, another wall of shelves houses all sorts of literary themed knickknacks and notebooks, there are some quirky gift ides, though it leaves a gimmicky impression.
There are chairs and stools to retire to- perches for perusal. Somewhere at the base of the stairs you’ll often find a crate of sale books. These are frequently uninspiring, but a gem or two should emerge with persistence. Upstairs is where the fun really begins, because this is the home to a second hand heaven. The spiral stairs open onto a wooden-floored library. Along the wall ahead are the coffee table books, art, fashion, design, art history and architecture. On the far wall there are the limited editions and antiques, a stunning display worth a look in and of itself. These books are works of art, and a small hint at Berkelouw’s extensive Antiquarian collection.
As a foreseeable result, there’s invariably an art student or two pouring over some cumbersome texts on a long wooden table. Behind this lot is second-hand fiction, again crime and the classics, but also an impressive selection of Australian novels. On this first floor they manage to balance the sober rows of books with all the light from the front windows. The whole place is bright and airy. There’s a bar-table along the glass façade that is the perfect width for a laptop and a wine glass. Also a great spot for people watching on Oxford Street. The natural light lends itself to long reading sessions, as do a couple of well-worn leather armchairs. The shop could do with a few more soft furnishings though. The décor is somewhat fussy- everything hand picked and placed, from the books in the display cases to the quirky cake trays and the antique bone-handle knives.
The café’s wines are similarly boutique, each coming from a family run vineyard and mostly though not exclusively from Australia. It’s worth noting at this point that Berkelouw is run by three brothers. Paul, Robert and David Berkelouw make up the sixth generation of book-dealers in their family!
Berkelouw’s was first established in Rotterdam in 1812 and has been trading in Sydney since 1948. These three guys live and breathe books. Robert stated in a 2002 interview ”This is such a wonderful business…It’s not like you’re selling people bags of potatoes”, I sometimes wonder if someone should remind him of that…. The boys now operate a few branches throughout Australia, a number in Sydney itself, and each one I’ve visited had its own unique feel and flavour.
The Leichart branch houses the renowned “Reading Studio” for kids, which David explains in an interview here- it’s worth a watch to get a sense of his wonderment at and commitment to children reading. The O’Connell Street branch is similarly family friendly. The warehouse setting, sun streaming from skylights and an open barn door on the first floor, all embody the bohemian, alternative feel that is so distinctive about Newtown. And THEN, there’s Paddington.
Paddo has a touch more elegance and finesse, and the wine bar, actually called Café 1812, lends an air of sophistication although the Brazilian manager is a somewhat sour little thing. The people who frequent the cafe however, are simply marvellous. On every visit I meet someone new and fascinating. There’s the science teacher who comes in to release his inner novelist, young actors preparing for upcoming shows, retired interior designers and more.
Anyway. Once you make it past the bar, there’s the last stairway, climbing into the real second hand: thousands more books. There’s History, Australiana, more art and photography, architecture, an impressive gender section, fiction and automotives, and other more obscure things. There’s also a good range of kids books, mostly of the old fashioned variety, with another little nook to read in. Plonked in-between the towering stacks are leather loungers that dare you not to set yourself down.
Berkelouw’s branches ar clear and well thought out, and it have superb collections. The location are brilliant. The coffee is good. The ale’s even better (try the Two Birds Sunset Ale, it’s cracking)
And yet it the package, particularly in Paddington, comes off somewhat forced. In many ways they seem still undecided about whether to fully embrace chic and suave or comfortable and rustic. At times the growing pains leave you a little self-conscious as a customer, a little too aware of the mark your glass makes on the polished wood and other such nonsense – the hovering manager never quite allows you to lose yourself in those marshmallow armchairs…