The Tsundoku Files: Brave?



‘You’re very brave opening a business at the moment, the way things are….’


If I had a dollar for every time I’d heard that in the last few months I probably wouldn’t need to open the business.


I know people generally mean well when they say this, but every time I hear it I can’t help but think of Sir Humphrey’s advice to Jim Hacker in Yes Minister. ‘Brave’ was always damming in Sir Humphrey’s mouth.


So what has persuaded us to open a second-hand book shop in the middle of a pandemic, having never before run our own business? Circumstances just seemed to lead us down this path. My wife Marion and I had been selling books for The Book Grocer company for the last few years. We’d both been lifelong readers, but now we really had the bug. Covid-19 had wrecked that company’s previous business model, forcing them to reinvent themselves as an online business. When our store closed at Easter, Marion and I were out of work.


Given our age and disposition, options weren’t exactly falling out of trees. We both had a couple of near-job experiences, but ultimately no cigar. Thoughts turned to creating our own opportunities.


Once you really start looking, you can be surprised what turns up. Because we lacked capital, second-hand books were always going to be our best option. Chances to buy good stock soon presented. Then the right shop space turned up. Serendipitously, we found ourselves taking possession of Everybody Knows Books on July 1. Now we had to fill it.


One thing about book shops is that aside from the books and bookshelves, everything else is negotiable. But you do need a lot of books. In our case, most of those books were sitting in a storage unit in Ballarat’s west. We all have our mountains to climb. Some people climb Everest. For me, it became emptying 400 boxes of books out of that god-dammed storage space. In the contest between me and the storage space, I won. Barely.




Everest climbed




Anyone who has ever worked retail knows that in many ways it is one big behavioural studies experiment. While setting up the shop, the findings kept presenting themselves, whether we were consciously testing or not. Like the rings on a tree, layers of old retail signage tell a tale. Once the Pilates studio we were replacing had removed their signage, our shop’s earlier incarnation as a computer store was revealed. Covid shutdowns had delayed our own signage, but we were soon to be convinced we weren’t wasting our money.


The first manifestation of a recurring phenomenon appeared out of the quickly gathering dusk on our third setup day. Working away, we were startled by a bearded vision in black robes. Somehow, an Orthodox priest of some denomination had managed to enter the store unheard. He wanted to know if we sold security cameras. The closest thing we had was a book on surveillance culture. Thereafter, barely a day passed without a little ritual repeating. Someone would enter the store, gaze meaningfully around all the bookcases and books, then ask if we fixed computers. As pleased as I was when our own signage arrived, a small part of me misses that strange ritual.


Of course, for the last 20 months we have all been living our lives as best we can around whatever lockdowns are happening. Ballarat has fared better in this regard than our Melbourne comrades, but life has still had many interruptions. Taking possession of the shop at the beginning of July, our first actual day of trading had to wait until the 28th. Since then, we have managed to trade just one month in three. We had planned for a rocky start, but no business model really allows for only trading every third day.


Still, we never expected to get rich selling books in the first place. No one really should. But we regret nothing. Each day has brought its own small adventures and entertainments. Book stores have always been some of our happiest places. Owning one is a delight. Hopefully we can persuade enough customers to think likewise. Brave or foolish? I suppose we’re about to find out.


Until next time.



Ready for action





What’s Tsundoku? To quote that peerless source, Wikipedia: ‘A Japanese concept of acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them. It is also used to refer to books ready for reading later when they are on a bookshelf.’


I take this to be all about the anticipation of the pleasure that reading brings. This should be every book seller’s motto. We aspire to become Tsundoku sensei.




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About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has passed his 40th year as a Carlton member.


  1. All power to your arm, JB! The Almanac’s editor circle’s loss is the Ballarat book scene’s gain.

    Your piece has prompted me to ask – what with the talk of ‘brave’ and the Japanese concept of tsundoku, do you have anything on the national rugby team of Japan, the Brave Blossoms?

  2. Best of luck to Marion and yourself, JB.

    My son recently purchased a house in Ballarat, so there is no doubt I will be calling in to see you in the new year.

  3. Looks magnificent John.

    I will come and visit next time I am in the rat

  4. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Tell us more about how you came across your stock JB, or is that a trade secret?

  5. Colin Ritchie says

    Looking good JB! I hope to drop in soon.

  6. Ian Hauser says

    JB, if I remember correctly, Sir Humphrey’s ultimate frightener was to say that Hacker’s latest idea was ‘courageous’. In your case, it’s more about following your dream and, therefore, no less than totally admirable. It’s a long way from Noosaville to Ballarat but we’ll get there one day. Like Swish, I’m interested to know how you source your stock.

  7. John Butler says

    JL, I had a look through our catalogue (17,000 titles and counting) and well done – you nominated one we don’t have. :) Sounds like an interesting topic though.

    Smokie, look forward to catching up.

    Thank you Noel. Make sure you make yourself known. :)

    Swish, IJH, the first rule of Book Club is you never talk about Book Club. :)
    Actually, it was just good timing. A couple of shops we knew of were closing. And no, we refused to take that as an omen.

    Col, you are welcome any time. Same goes for all Almanackers.

    Cheers all.

  8. opportunity knocks.

    I always admire and slightly envy when someone takes life by the horns.
    I hear a rebellious and adventurous part of me asking: What is life for, JB, if not for pursuing a dream?

    Long may your stories unfold at “everybody knows books.” Wonderful.

  9. John Butler says

    Thanks ER.

    Once all this lockdown stuff is done with I reckon we should all have a good think about what’s next. One abiding lesson of this experience for us has been that there are more possibilities out there than we might think.

  10. Great stuff JB. Am sure it’ll go very well. Have you a copy of the old Enid Blyton classic, “Five Go Mad In The Carlton Boardroom?”

    All the best.

  11. John Butler says

    Mickey, only 5?

    That would constitute a quiet day. :)

  12. Daryl Schramm says

    Being a fairly slow reader, I have enough trouble keeping up with The Almanac community. I do love a lookaround a bookshop though and will gladly accept your kind invitation to call in on my way through sometime in the future John. All the best in your new venture.

  13. JB likewise all the best big time and yep next time over that way will definitely touch base

  14. Wonderful story, John. And the shop looks extremely inviting.
    Reminds me of when Marshall and I retired from our “normal” jobs in Qld and moved to Sydney and took the bull by the horns and opened an Art Gallery, with no previous gallery experience. Most people were pessimistic and wondered why on earth we’d take such a risk. Like you and Marion, we needed to be involved in what we loved, so congratulations!

  15. Huge congrats JB and Marion! Can’t wait to get up to Ballarat and check your bookstore out. Life is what we invest in with our heart and mind and soul. Cheers and as I’ll let Joan Rivers promote your bookstore: “you can find my book at your favourite bookstore, and if it isn’t there, find a new favourite”..

  16. Roger Lowrey says

    All the very best with it JB.

    On my next visit to my erstwhile electorate of Ballarat Province which never elected me – ungrateful bastards – I shall find time to drop in.

    Presumably Dr Google knows chapter and verse about how I find you.


  17. DBalassone says

    Any books on the 1911 VFL season?

    All the best with this JB. Hope to swing past in the not-too-distant future.

  18. CITRUS BOB says

    Looks like an influx of “Knackers” turning up to buy! Good luck JB and Marion.
    Which reminds me I have a top-selling football book called “Heart & Soul” (no! not Matt Zurbo’s) that is selling fast.
    I Will drop of a few copies when I am next in “The Rat”.
    Meanwhile will pass the word around to friends, relatives, and Adam McNicoll domiciled in your fair city.

  19. Great stuff JB and Marion. Beautiful and bold.

    We look forward to visiting too. No doubt the online possibilities are also enormous. And I am sure many Almanac types are chasing a particular title or twelve. There’s a service you might offer.

    To start with I’m chasing David Malouf stuff. I’ve lost 12 Edmonstone St (Loosely translated = can’t remember who borrowed it).

    Also, as IJH will attest,I can recommend the annual Lifeline Book Festival in Brisbane – the greatest re-circulator of the written word and image on the planet.

  20. Kasey Symons says

    Congratulations JB! Store looks great and I hope I’m able to visit it one day! All the best :)

  21. Peter Fuller says

    Very happy to add my good wishes to Marion and you for the venture. Congratulations on the initiative. May Everybody Knows Books live long and prosper.
    If R. Lowrey can manage the trip, I guess the additional 25k won’t be an insurmountable hurdle for me.
    Thank you for the laugh with your all-too-accurate rejoinder to Mickey Randall.

  22. John Butler says

    Many thanks for all the good wishes, folks.

    Citrus, your book is welcome any time. DB, you have a good memory to think of 1911. :)

    We are really looking forward to catching up with so many of our Melbourne friends. And all our friends from anywhere. I can’t actually remember the last time I left Ballarat.

    Take care all.

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