Readings’ owner fulfils ‘CBD fantasy’ at the most unlikely moment

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Readings will open a new bookshop in Melbourne’s central business district, with managing director Mark Rubbo backing the city to spring back to life after the coronavirus pandemic.

While Readings experienced a 40 per cent drop in sales during the pandemic, Mr Rubbo said the silver lining had been cheaper rent for the store, which is set to open in Melbourne’s Emporium shopping centre in December.

“It’s always been one of my fantasies to have a large shop in the CBD, and we could never make the rent, find the site or make it work,” he said.

Mark Rubbo, managing director of Readings, will be opening an eighth store in Melbourne’s CBD. Credit:Simon Schluter

The pandemic enabled Readings to negotiate a discount of around 20 to 30 per cent on rent to what was originally asked from landlord Vicinity, and Mr Rubbo said he hoped this would make the new store viable.

“Melbourne is a great city and history shows us that people like to congregate in spaces together,” he said. “I think the city will come back. Sadly, a lot of businesses have closed in the city, but hopefully now this might lead to a resurgence of new green shoots, making a much more vibrant city actually coming back in the long term”.

Mr Rubbo said while online sales were strong, often people only ordered one book online compared to when they came into a book store for one book and would leave with five others.

“It might be tough for six to 12 months,” he said. “But I think ultimately it will come back, and we are hoping it will. I hope we’ve made the right decision.”

Mr Rubbo said many of the city’s bookshops had closed, leaving Hill of Content, Paperback and Dymocks as the remaining established bookshops in the CBD.

“Melbourne is a UNESCO city of literature and I think it deserves another great bookshop,” he said.

The store in the Emporium is Readings’ eighth Melbourne store and has been designed by Kerstin Thompson Architects with seating space for reading and an area for talks by authors.

Robbie Egan, chief executive of the Australian Booksellers Association, said book selling was a “different form” of retail with 50 per cent of people going into a bookshop without any purchase in mind just because they like looking around the store.

He said the coronavirus pandemic had led to “huge sales” with Nielsen figures showing the industry was broadly up, however, it was dominated by pure online players Amazon and Booktopia with small independent booksellers suffering particularly in Melbourne and Sydney.

“In the inner city there is no foot traffic at all, and it has been extremely difficult and most book stores are probably losing money on a weekly basis,” Mr Egan said.

Mr Egan said things had started to pick up with trading in the last 12 weeks improving significantly from 25 per cent down to looking even last year.

“There’s a new Jonathan Franzen book, Liane Moriarty is a blockbuster every time she releases something now,” he said. “All the ingredients, if you take lockdown out of it, are there for a fantastic Christmas.”

It is this retail bounce back which Readings is counting on.

“Hopefully books and bricks and mortar is having a bit of resurgence,” Mr Rubbo said. “People are social animals. I just notice, when we are open, the conversations you see people having with other people about books or with our staff, it’s that social interaction.”

Saturday October 9 is Love your Bookshop Day which celebrates bookshops across the country.

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