Hometowns are a funny thing. Many people can’t wait to escape them or are met with impending dread whenever the thought arises to revisit them.
My birthplace of Inverell is a place that I always enjoy going back to. A retreat of sorts in a bid to escape the city rat race. Time moves slow, which is a welcome relief and a total contrast.
Not only that, but the influence of one’s formative years is something that, in my opinion, is carried through life. The fabric of one’s make-up, essentially, and whether it’s immediate or subconscious, the ghosts of the past (good or bad) will always linger.
Like everywhere, COVID-19 has impacted the town most famous for the sapphire mining boom in the early ’70s. Boasting a population of approximately 12,000, my first thought was about community and whether the pandemic, like in Liverpool, would solidify towns in Australia, including the one from which I originate.
My second thought was the Orpheus Bookshop. The independent book/record retailer that I surprisingly stumbled across when visiting Inverell back in 2019. Did it survive the pandemic? Particularly in a town that is dominated by sport and what many would consider a culturally starved landscape where the arts are concerned.
Within 24 hours of arriving back home after the general rigorous of a day-long flight, body clock realignments and the numerous connections to actually get to what is considered a regional part of the country in northern New South Wales, walking down one of Inverell’s main streets, I just had to know whether the business had survived.
Thankfully it did, and as I entered the shop, the same friendly face of shop owner, Garry Newley, was there to greet me.
So too an avid sound head, flicking through the vinyl crates and providing commentary to each piece of vinyl he picked up and tucked under his wing. His arsenal of dusty, frayed second-hand vinyl including ACDC’s TNT along with an array of artists I’d not heard of. Newley was only too happy to provide responses to his customer’s precise commentary. A sound world way beyond my remit, but that’s the thing about art: there is no such thing as omniscience.
By the time the customer had finished, he had around 30 pieces of vinyl in tow, no doubt ready to drop a couple of hundred dollars into the Orpheus Bookshop Christmas fund. The glow of commerce overriding those Christmas lights; it was lovely to see for a small independent business wedged between the plethora of beauticians, pharmacies and hairdressers which largely comprise of Inverell’s local business community.
After having a chat about the late Australian author, Robert G. Barrett, and recommending me a book by Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant Is Okay (one which turned out to be very good indeed), we arranged to have a chat just after Christmas.
Firstly we spoke of the pandemic where Newley confirmed it was hard times. “Luckily, my landlord agreed to cut the rent. I think he did that for two months, so that was a bit of pressure off me. We were closed for, I think, six weeks in total. Which seems, in hindsight, like decades ago.”
A mixture of people taking pause and spending more time reading and listening to music, coupled with the Australian government’s furlough scheme also worked in the shop’s favour.
“As businesses reopened, the government was giving people free money. I had a lot of customers I’ve never seen since [and] never seen before, coming in and dropping 120 bucks on records. One guy came twice in a month, and he must have bought 15 Slim Dusty records! I guess that free money helped the economy. [It] helped people in retail like me. I mean, it also helped corporations who pocketed a lot of the money and were making record profits. Overall, for the country, I’m not sure that it was a great idea.”
Newley’s optimism was also something that got him through these tough times. “I didn’t lose heart. I just adopted the mentality, ‘Well, there’s going to be businesses worse off than me, and if at all ends tomorrow, well, it’s been a good run.”
Formed in 2010, the Orpheus Bookshop first began several streets over, tucked away between one of the town’s most long-standing cafes and the local Woolworths. The premises was formerly home to Inverell’s only adult shop. “People would come in and ask me where the adult section was,” says Newley. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that of course. We’re not that kind of shop, though.”
Newley elaborates on his past, including his work on the railways. “I started reading, self-educating,” he offers. “I had a railway job [and was] on the trains traveling a bit. I decided I should make use of my time and read, so I took a dictionary with me. I was into socialism at that stage. I was self-educating myself about history, and the social aspects of current and previous history. [It] lit my interest in global history, because I was never really interested in history of school at all – I found it was taught in a very boring manner, and I had no interest at all.”
Prior to Orpheus Bookshop, Newley owned a bric-a-brac/ antiques shop in neighbouring town, Armidale, before closing the business prior to the Global Financial Crisis. He recounts the story of the idea to open a bookshop.
“We went past a house mid-Saturday afternoon and saw a sign, ‘Garage sale and books’. There was boxes and boxes of books, spread out on a tarpaulin and we walked in and had a look. There was nobody else there because the garage sale was practically over. The lady said, ‘Oh, you can have a lot if you like four hundred dollars’. I bought them, stacked them all in the back of the station wagon and took them to the tender centre and put them out on a series of tables, [and] probably sold about six books out of all that lot. It was a bad deal, but it was a learning experience. That started it off. I thought I can do better than this. I needed to recoup my losses, so it started, and it grew.”
Since its humble beginnings, Newley then moved to the current premises on Otho Street. Coincidently, it’s the same premises that was home to Inverell’s premiere record shop in the ’70s, the Sound Tavern. “Some second-hand records we get in still have those Sound Tavern stickers,” he offers with smile. How it all ties together.
“It’s got a good vibe,” says Newley looking around the shop floor. “It’s long and thin, which lends itself nicely to a bookshop that draws you in. It’s got a main street front and a display window and doesn’t break the bank to pay the rent.”
And when did vinyl come into the equation?
“When I first opened the shop, I brought in a couple of plastic cubes of LPs. I shoved them under this very table, in fact,” says Newley. “I had a little stereo system hooked up. I just thought, ‘Well, it’s a bookshop, but I love records, so I’ll just bring a few in’. Occasionally I’d sell some for silly prices, like eight dollars each; mint condition records that are now bringing in four hundred dollars. People that love vinyl still went through them. I was constrained for space, but I thought it was a wise idea. I’ve never gone away from vinyl. Ever. It’s great to share the passion with people. Either they’ve discovered it, or they’ve rediscovered; it’s never gone away.”
Sticking to his roots, Newley keeps Orpheus Bookshop strictly analogue. There’s a logbook where he enters every single sale. These are the kind of aspects that give the store its identity. A beautiful nostalgia and an unwavering attitude to stick to the principles and not submit to new trends.
“It works for me. I was never a great student. I’m not a fast reader. But the way I used to study for exams was [that] I would go through my books and basically rewrite a lot of stuff, summarise it. The act of writing, it seemed to imprint in my memory enough so that I could regurgitate at exam time. By writing down the sales on pencil on paper, not only does it allow me to then do mental arithmetic at the end of every day; also, it’s a reminder about the things that I’ve sold, or how I must replace those four novels by Jeffrey Deaver, for example.”
Newley also offers that the method acts as a reference point. “It’s also something to look back on it. If you’ve got a legitimate business, it’s humbling. As small as it is, you need to have some sort of record, other than a spreadsheet to put the daily totals in.”
We continue talking about the contrasts between systems of the past and the digital age and how that has filtered through the current generation.
“I’m not against digital, per se, but having everything available all the time, I don’t think it’s a good thing for people’s development, and I don’t think it’s a good thing socially. It’s a bit like parenting without limits. It might be easier for the parents, but in the end it creates a nightmare for them, and it ruins the kids because they don’t understand boundaries. And the real world is full of [them] – some obviously completely unnecessary, some arbitrary, some unfair, and some there for very good reasons. You’re not really equipping people adequately to be a functional adult or young person if they don’t understand boundaries. Sure, they can question them, but society needs to be able to get on to get on, you know? If you’re the centre of your own universe, you’re going to have a very disappointing life and you’re going to make a lot of enemies.”
Music and books entwine, however looking around the store and listening to Newley speak to his customers with a non-intrusive brand of taste-maker authority, it makes me wonder: what is his preference?
“I was an avid reader when I was younger,” he starts. “I was a regular visitor to our town library when I was a young boy, probably twice a week. Until we got television in the house, and we got it a bit later than some of our neighbours, who were better off. I was in about grade five in primary school, and we got television, black and white. Very ordinary, but when we got television that was it for reading in our house. Any kind of family dynamics, the television ruled everything. I can’t even think of any novels that I may have read except for the compulsory ones and didn’t really get reading until I was probably in my late ’20s and started to read nonfiction; [that] was a bit more of a self-education thing because I went to university later in life and I was in my ’30s.”
Newley then continues about his love affair with music.
“Music had always been a thing. I was a radio addict when I was younger, and listened to music at every opportunity, such as it was with only two radio stations available in a small country town. But then I started buying records when I got my first casual job at about 17. I never stopped buying vinyl since. I got partially sucked into the CD thing as well, but I was always still looking for vinyl. It was just a better sound, but of course, you couldn’t buy a lot of artists on vinyl when the CD came in.”
When asking Newley about his early music memories, the spider senses are out. Without hesitation, he recounts the story.
“I was listening to radio when I was probably three and four years old. And whilst my father had a particular taste, as soon as The Beatles came along, that lit the spark within me and a couple of my peers and we just loved that music. And before then it was people like Johnny Horton, not so much Elvis Presley. Not country and western. I never really liked country and western or country even until I was in my ’40s.”
The latter point is interesting. Having visited Inverell sporadically over the past 15 years, this time there has been a noticeable shift in trend and taste. Country music seems to have a grapple hold over many, with even younger people referencing many country music artists from both Australia and America. It’s a dramatic change during the days where country music was largely frowned upon, however in a day and age where artistic tribalism has reduced considerably, it seems to make sense – the country sound resonating with the landscape and general way of life in the more remote parts of the country.
“It’s interesting, because you come and go. I’m here all the time,” says Newley. “Country embraces everything. There’s a resurgence. You’ve got country, rock country, blues country, just about everything has country. I think it’s marketing. If you can play guitar or and you can sing, then I reckon it’s the easiest way to get a career that will either be part-time or full-time in Australia, because you can go and play in the pubs. There are so many artists out there, so I reckon that’s sort of bled both ways in and out of American country. So many people can play that and do quite a good job. You might get somebody with a banjo or a fiddle and, suddenly, you’ve got a really good sound. Unless all you want to listen to is death metal.”
With sole independent business owners of this kind, while few remain, I always wonder about their stock in trade. Is it representative of them in a diaristic sense, or does the business angle overshadow ideology and personal preferences?
“I wonder that too when I go into other bookshops,” he says, “I’ve got to be very careful about it. It does influence what I buy. In the LP line, for sure. But you’ve really got to quash that because, after all, it’s a business, and I would never run a business like this from my garage at home selling on the web. There’s no fulfilment. Even though I can’t stand Midnight Oil, for example, they’re great musicians. I would not stop selling Midnight Oil. Same with hair metal.
“In terms of books, novels come and go. I like to have quirky and interesting stuff. But I think that’s more of a vanity project. If people come in and they see the same authors and best sellers that you see if you go to Big W or somewhere, what’s the point? I like to make sure I stock Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell, Shakespeare, Jack Kerouac…”
The term fulfilment is yet another interesting one, feeding into my idea about the Orpheus Bookshop and the position it maintains in the community. In my mind, a prospering town should always have a store like this. Such an establishment is embodiment and bedrock of the community; again, this is why the establishment has been on my mind for the past three-and-half-years. From a fan and consumer perspective, I feel proud that my hometown has a functioning independent business such as Orpheus Bookstore.
“Look, I feel a sense of obligation,” says Newley. “The fact is, it’s not sending me broke; I make a modest living out of it. It is up and down, but I feel that it’s a very important part of the cultural fabric of Inverell. It draws people from north, south, east and west, from more than 150 kilometres away. We have three art galleries here, and there’s a range of retail which brings people in, but this is part of the fabric.
“We used to have another bookshop selling new books. We competed to a small extent, but business brings business. A town that has two bookshops is more attractive than a town that has one. It’s the fulfilment that you get from a job well done and keeping people happy. Where they can say, ‘Oh, I’ve been looking for this for ages!’ It’s wonderful. Introducing people to vinyl. It’s just not like selling socks or gold bullion. There’s not that much fulfilment in that kind of thing.”
For more information visit the Orpheus Bookstore’s Facebook page.