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George Greenwood

An interview

by David Carroll, 1992

First Appeared in Golden Years, issue 3

Greenwood's Bookshop was a familiar haunt of Sydney book-lovers for over 50 years, run by George Greenwood in Castlereagh St and then Elizabeth St before closing in 1983. In this interview, conducted at his home in May, 1992, George talks about himself and the business of selling books.

George is David's Great Uncle. He was born in Canterbury, Sydney in 1911, and died in 1999.

David Carroll: Can you tell us how you started in the business?

George Greenwood: I had been articled to the law over three years. My Master Solicitor was the leading divorce lawyer at the time and well into the 1930's. When the question about divorce and those in the community arose journalists would seek his advice on that subject. In early 1932 I forsook the Law so my father, who had been a bit of a collector said 'what about opening a bookshop?'. I said 'Yes, that would be alright.' So, we had some books at home. We hadn't prepared for this, so we took what we could do without into town on a horse dray, owned by Mr Biggs, a Londoner. And we opened at 199A Castlereagh St on the Eleventh of April, 1932, in the middle of the Depression.

DC: Did that make it easier or harder to start a business?

GG: Well, there were plenty of vacant shops, it was easier in that sense, but you probably mean financially. I started to make a living at it almost from the start. I borrowed occasionally from my father, and we gradually built up to the stage where, within a year, I suppose, I was making a living.

DC: What was it like in the early days of the shop?

GG: We had very little stock, but due to my father's knowledge of books -- he wasn't a reader, but he used to be a collector -- I was trained by him to buy what we thought were saleable goods. But right from the beginning I decided we needed educational books. I'd come straight from the university, which means I was three years after school so I was more familiar with what were required than most of the, perhaps all of the, second-hand booksellers in trading at the time. So I continued that specialty in educational books right to the end, although I was a general bookseller for that time.

DC: Would the educational books have been about half your stock?

GG: Only about a tenth of the stock, but it was the stock which turned over more rapidly than the others.

DC: And is that what started attracting the customers?

GG: Yes, mostly leaving certificate students, university students.

DC: And were they the ones that started buying the general stock, or was that a different market?

GG: No the others weren't bought by university students, they concentrated on the essentials. Which meant that each year I needed to know which books were being used at the universities. So at the beginning of each university year I bought most of the faculty handbooks. I didn't buy the handbooks for some of the faculties because there weren't many students in them. Sydney University at one stage sent me a list of the subjects in all faculties, And with most there were no students in some of the years in some of the faculties. One I remember was Aeronautical Engineering. In one or two years there wasn't one student.

I would stick to the faculty handbooks, especially with the relevant editions of the prescribed texts. I might buy a few old editions, but at a much cheaper rate.

DC: Where did you buy your stock?

GG: Mainly over the counter, and at auction. I attended auctions several times a week.

DC: Tell us some of your memories of the other second hand bookshops at the time.

GG: Castlereagh Street at the time was a booksellers row. At the northern end, at 79, was Angus and Robertsons, who had a big second hand department, including educational. And then there was Skinner's, near Market Street. Skinner's had been in business many years. And there was the second hand department of the Methodist Book Depot and then the Universal Book Store run by a Mr and Mrs Delacar. That was a bit inclined to be leftist. And there were Gilmour, who had a very big second hand bookshop. And before Gilmour's was Everyman's, run by a man called De Burgh. And while later, in the late 1930's, there was another bookseller between Park and Market Streets named Murray. He had to move at one stage, and came and asked me if I would mind him setting up business next door. I said no, that would be alright, and he stayed there for some years, until he died under an operation.

DC: Was there a lot of competition between the bookshops?

GG: Yes, the competition was friendly, except for Mr De Burgh, Snr. of Everyman's Bookshop. I went in there on one occasion to pay a friendly visit -- he eventually ordered me out of the shop.

DC: Was that over any particular matter?

GG: No, I think he thought I was just a general nuisance.

DC: What about some of the other bookshops around Sydney?

GG: Dymocks had a big second hand department on the floor above the magazines on the first floor. I don't think they have any second hand books at the moment. Tyrrell's were in a big barn of a place, almost next door to Wynyard Station in George Street. He was an old time bookseller, going back to the early Twentieth Century. There were other book sellers. There was a Mr Lusebrink, a German, who with his English wife ran a small shop in Golbourn Street, opposite Anthony Horden's for years. They were very friendly people, and when the building was pulled down, they moved to Campbell Street, between Pitt Street and George Street. There was also the Basement Book Company, in George Street, near the Glaciarium. They were leftist.

DC: Was that frowned upon?

GG: I don't think it upset people. They were accepted.

DC: What was the general running of the shop like, back then?

GG: I had my elder sister Myrtle with me, until the end of the war. And when I was called into the army in '42 my sister managed the shop, with the help of a part-time, former Latin teacher, Edna Coffey. They stayed together till I was discharged from the army, and my sister Myrtle left after a while, to become a Missionary in New Guinea. Edna Coffey stayed with me until the 1970s.

DC: What is your general impression of Sydney when you opened the shop? How was it different?

GG: It was different physically, in the size of the buildings. There was a one hundred and fifty foot height limit for many years, but that was broken in my time, and multistory buildings became all the rage, especially in the Central Business District. And trams ran towards the quay in Castlereagh Street for thirty-five years during the whole of my stay there. The trams have since disappeared. I still find it awkward crossing both Castlereagh and Pitt Streets because while buses run in both streets and there is other traffic, all of the traffic moves in directions opposite to what I was used to. Traffic in Castlereagh Street used to run in a Northerly direction, now it runs in a Southerly direction. Pitt the reverse. It's dangerous for an old-timer.

DC: What was the traffic like back then? Were there many motor cars?

GG: No, there were very few cars in the 1930s. I remember playing what was called Junior Cricket, which really means Inferior Cricket, for thirty-five years in the Canterbury District. And there were several of our wickets on Riverside Park, Undercliff, as well as grounds occupied by the Churchs' Competition. There could have been hundreds, up to a thousand cricketers, on that park and yet there'd be only six cars in the 1930s, with all those cricketers. Now almost everybody uses a car to go to the cricket ground. It was similar with the streets. There was very little traffic.

DC: A lot of horses?

GG: There were horses in the 1930s. And for some years while I was in the shop, on a Saturday morning each year there was what was known as something like a 'Back to Horses' week, in an attempt to get horses back into use in the city, but that eventually faded out.

DC: Can you tell us about some of the more interesting customers you've had over the years?

GG: Billy Hughes, the late Billy Hughes wasn't a customer -- he didn't come into the shop, but on two occasions I saw him looking in the shop window. A well-known, respected customer was Judge Ferguson, who has since died. He was perhaps from the late 1930s, I'm not sure when, but he was preparing a bibliography of Australian books, which he worked on till he died. In the meantime I think he published twelve volumes of his work. I don't know if he completed it by the time of his death, he may have done so. That's a very valuable item now. We had the Thieving Parson, a name I dubbed him. He used to look at the magazine counter, mainly perusing women's magazines, he was an odd character. We didn't have many thieves that I was aware of, but on one occasion I struck, I think my sister drew attention to the activities of a school boy, and I nabbed him with books in his possession. I warned him of his evil doings, and told him not to come into the shop again. But to my surprise, some years after, he'd gone to university and probably graduated, I saw him in the shop again. I let him have his way.

DC: Did he try and steal again from you?

GG: Not that I know of. (laughs)

DC: How did you keep track of books in those days? Did you know how many you had?

GG: No. I don't know how many, but many thousands. But since I've been in business in the last year, I've discovered a second-hand bookseller in Pitt Street up near Christ Church, St Lawrence, in a basement, who was an old customer of mine whose name was Mr White. He works with two sons I think and they have two computers on which they keep records of their buying and selling, so they always know what they have in stock. Now that was unexpected, by me, that this should happen, because some years ago a salesman offered me a computer and I laughed at the idea, and thought the work involved in recording all my stock and keeping up to date wouldn't make it worthwhile. But here's a father and sons, working two computers. But I've learnt too, in recent years, that a lot of the superior second-hand booksellers, members of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association, who deal in rare books -- most of them, I've been told, have computers.

DC: A lot of the current bookshops have computers now.

GG: Most of the new bookshops do.

DC: But even a lot of the second hand bookshops, too.

GG: I suppose they do, yes.

DC: Have there been any other technology changes, in the running of a bookshop?

GG: Yes. Technology didn't change much for me, I might have felt the effects of it, but it didn't change my way of doing business. For instance, I had a Tucker Till and still have it, which is an old system -- goes back perhaps to the last century -- and that Tucker Till did me for the whole of the fifty-one years. I tried to sell it at auction when I closed down, but the auctioneers wouldn't accept it. And also during the whole of my period in business, I was inundated with advertising from one of the main manufacturers of automatic tills, but I didn't succumb to the urging. Otherwise technology didn't affect me, not directly.

DC: Did you notice a big effect on the books you were selling?

GG: I suppose technology, as well as financial concerns, brought about the popularity of paperbacks. It is thought that paperbacks started with the Penguins, but that is not so. Paperbacks were produced in England in the 1870s, and in France they pre-dated those. As a matter of fact the policy of French publishers and booksellers was to produce books so that the buyers of them could have them bound to there own taste. But I don't think this happened with the popularisation of paperbacks from the 1930s onwards.

DC: Were there definite trends in the books you were selling?

GG: The trends were pretty steady, yeah. During the whole of my time as a bookseller the mystery story, detective story was always popular. At the beginning of my career, Westerns were far more popular than they are today. In fact Westerns have just about ceased to exist. Of course Science Fiction started in my time and I'm not sure of its position -- it's been nine years since I retired -- but I thought that Science Fiction was on the wane. Perhaps in the 1960s. I remember the American magazine Amazing Stories who published not only monthly editions but also quarterly editions. The quarterlies were bigger and dearer and always very much in demand.

DC: Were they for the younger members of your market?

GG: They were bought by the younger members as a rule, yes.

DC: How old were your customers. Mainly university students?

GG: All sorts of age groups. The school and university students generally, but middle age to old were quite good customers. Men more than women. And in my impression, public servants more than members of the professions or members of the general public. In my second shop in Elizabeth Street I was close to the Water Board, and I got a lot of customers from that institution. But my impression was that the public servants in general were good readers.

DC: Did you notice the horror genre starting?

GG: Yes, horror books were always popular. And I think during my time there was an increase in the occult, non fiction.

DC: Tell us about the change in shops.

GG: I changed because my building in Castlereagh Street which was then owned by the Catholic Club was going to be pulled down, so they gave me notice to quit. I defended the case in Central Court, but lost the case. So I saw this shop, the new shop, in Elizabeth Street to let so I made enquiry of the owners, and they accepted me straight away. That means I was thirty-five years in Castlereagh Street and sixteen years in Elizabeth Street opposite the War Memorial. And I left there because I got similar notice to quit, and because of my age and because of the cost I thought that was involved in setting up again I decided to retire. I was seventy-two years of age.

DC: What year did you change shops?

GG: I made the move from Castlereagh to Elizabeth in 1967.

DC: And which year did you retire?

GG: 1983.

DC: Back to when you started the shop, did you socialise with the other dealers, or just meet them at auctions, or what?

GG: In their shops. Some of them would come into my shop. They were always very friendly, except with on experience with Mr De Burg, Snr, and I met them at auction. Most booksellers didn't attend auctions as regularly as I did. But I found auctions at Lawson's on a Friday, when they were at 236 Castlereagh St, a good avenue for buying books I might not be offered otherwise. Tyrrell's appeared... Jim Tyrrell appeared there occasionally, but sometimes I thought he gave too much for books, (laughs) as a matter of fact I thought on one occasion he was giving more than the new price.

DC: What sort of pricing policy did you have?

GG: Condition was a factor of it. If a book was in good condition, and if, an educational book where rarity wasn't involved I would mark it at two thirds of the new price, less if they were knocked about. But I acquired the skill of putting end-papers in books which restored a lot of educational books to a reasonable standard -- a standard where they could be sold and remain in good condition during their use of it.

DC: Were a lot of books coming in over the counter?

GG: Oh yes, plenty.

DC: And what was the policy for these?

GG: For general fiction, and books generally, apart from educational, it was always speculative. I could be more definite with educational books. But other booksellers didn't like handling educational books, I feel that they were afraid of them, afraid of the new editions, afraid of the very names of the subjects. But that didn't worry me, as I said earlier I tend to follow what was going on with education because, not only did I buy most faculty handbooks at the beginning of the year -- by the way I bought them for Sydney University, the University of New England, and the new Universities as they were established, such as the University of New South Wales and the University of Technology and so on. I didn't worry about the faculty handbooks of the main University in Canberra, the ANU, because they got their members, mostly at the earlier time from Victoria, because for most of my career, Canberra was a Melbourne branch. On the establishment of Federation and for years afterwards most of the headquarters of Australian Commonwealth departments were in Melbourne, so when they eventually shifted to Canberra most of the Melbourne staff went with them. I think that Victorian influence is dying now, Canberra draws its public servants from all over Australia, but in my earlier years I got very little business from the ANU. I think the University of Canberra has been established since I retired.

DC: Did most of the customers seem to be Sydney-siders, any visitors?

GG: No, I get the occasional visitor from interstate.

DC: And were there many foreigners coming into the store?

GG: Not so many -- not as many as you might expect. But I had an experience several times with Italian parents who would come in for school books for their children, and very often they objected to buying second hand books for their children. Whereas Australians of British descent have that tradition of buying second hand books. I struck that early with Italians to be conscious of it. Other people might have objected, from other countries, although I wasn't conscious of it.

DC: Are you yourself a great reader of books?

GG: No, I'm a disgrace (laughs). I used to read Nineteenth Century classics when I was younger, and in more recent years I've read most of Thomas Hardy, and following the example of my wife I read more mystery stories than others, today.

DC: Was this a trend among most booksellers?

GG: I don't really know. But Ron Higgs, who was a bookseller I've forgotten to mention who had a bookshop in George St, near the Haymarket, and had been trained by Angus and Robertson and mainly new booksellers, had a remarkable knowledge of the classics -- their authors and their titles -- because each morning when he worked in the classics department, he would check their stock to see that there was one of each title they had in stock on the shelves in view of the public. He had a remarkable knowledge.

I must mention, thinking about my staff, I married Alice Eager in 1961 and after a few years she became a partner and worked part-time, almost full-time, in the shop at various stages. My sister Jean also worked in the shop for many years after the war, when my sister Myrtle left me to become a missionary. She was part-time.

DC: It's often said you have a great love of the English language.

GG: Yes, I have a great love of the English language. The Prince of Wales said recently, in objection of bad trends in the use of English... he said we are using the language of Shakespeare, we must remember that. I'm a bit of a pedant I suppose, but I still remember my grammar. I remember for the Leaving Certificate we studied amongst other books a book called Campbell's Higher English, but I was still surprised at the heights to which English grammar can be taken. I forgot a lot of what I learned in Campbell's, but I've read every article published in the Herald by Alan Peterson over the last seven or eight years except for six months when we were away overseas, and except for a further six weeks when we were on holiday. I'm very pleased with his articles. He's often drawn attention to the origin of English words, or their etymology, and he's interested in the absurdities of current English -- a lot of it used by University staff in subjects such as Commerce and Economics. But generally he gets a great ??? to the development of absurdities. And he revealed the other day that he was a member of that society which is in existence to advise the staff of the ABC in the use of English -- I've forgotten the title of the body concerned.

DC: You spoke about having a holiday recently, were there any holidays you took while running the shop?

GG: For the first sixteen years I didn't take one holiday. And we worked Friday nights in those days, and Saturday mornings. Saturday afternoon was reserved for cricket in the summer months and soccer -- watching soccer, in the winter months. But with the disappearance of the... no, I always worked on Saturday mornings. I worked out that for years I worked for fifty-six hours a week.

I had two long holidays. One with my wife -- around the world, really. That was in 1965. We went by ship, via Suez, one of the last ships to get through the Suez Canal before it was closed for some time, and we had a trip through the old country, England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and a twenty-eight day tour of the continent. We came back via the United States and Canada, and home across the Pacific, calling in at Hawaii and Auckland on the way. The second big holiday was in 1988, after retiring, we did a seven weeks trip though the UK, including a long tour of England, Scotland and Wales, and a tour of Northern France, including the Loire Valley. This trip was by air.

DC: Who was running the store?

GG: My sister Jean and Edna Coffey. My father, who had retired in June 1943 at the age of sixty-five, from the Customs Department used to come in and help -- on an unpaid basis, which was very acceptable. This would have been between the years of 1943 and 1954. My father died in 1955.

DC: Are there any interesting anecdotes you can tell us about your years in the Sydney book trade?

GG: I mentioned Francis James, didn't I? [before we started taping -- DC] Now here's a story I'll tell you about him, and his Rolls Royce car. I was in Park St, walking towards Town Hall Station one evening -- it must have been summer time because it was light -- and Francis James drove up Park St and stopped at the corner of George St, and for some reason he was approached by a policeman on duty. He was driving his old Rolls Royce, which was like second-hand copies -- copies, that's a bookish word -- the Rolls Royce, which could be bought in those days for about a hundred pounds, judging by advertisements in the Herald. And, I didn't hear what the policeman said, but I did hear Francis James, in an imperious way, say to the policeman, 'Away with you, man'. To my surprise the policeman just walked off.

I was in the shop one day when Francis James, wearing a big sombrero hat, which he wore partly because he had contact lenses as a result of a crash of his plane whilst fighting with the RAF. And also in the shop was Rabbi Falk, who was wearing a round, flat-topped, black hat, the sort worn by some French priests. And Francis James, ever one to do something extraordinary, said to the Rabbi, 'Pardon me, Sir. Would you like to swap hats?'. The Rabbi wasn't in the mood. He just said 'No'.

DC: What was your relationship with Francis?

GG: Well, he's been a customer of mine, and also he'd been editor of The Anglican for some years, and he published, for my brother, a history of St Paul's, Canterbury, and he wanted me to look for the last British edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, published around about 1909, or it was the ninth edition, I forget which, since when it's been published in the United States. Now there's irony for you. However, during my time I wasn't able to get him one.

DC: What about Clive James?

GG: Yes, Clive James was a customer of mine who had become quite famous. As a high school student and a Sydney University student, he was a customer of mine. But I'd forgotten all about him until one time he came into the shop and expected me to know him, but I didn't, and I admitted I didn't know who he was. So he told me he was an old customer. And I'd read in the Herald that he'd become quite famous with some London TV... I think it was ITV, and did a lot of interviewing. So he asked me if I minded him interviewing me. He said you're the first on my Australian tour of interviews I make. So, he arranged to come back in a few days time with his staff, including photographers and journalists, and I was standing outside the shop, and pretended to recognise him straight away. He fell in with this little bit of nonsense, and came into the shop, took a lot of photographs, and got some statements from me and I felt afterwards he probably didn't show this interview on the London TV because I felt I had very little to say. Next week a friend of mine who overheard the interview said it probably finished up on the floor, and I can imagine... I've never been in touch with Clive James to ask him what he did with it, perhaps I should do so.

DC: Have you been asked to do a lot of interviews?

GG: Yes, twice by the ABC. Once on celebrating fifty years of being in the shop, and the other on my sixtieth birthday. I was interviewed on the first occasion by Margaret Throsby, the second by a gentleman whose name I forget. But Margaret Throsby and the gentleman gave no indications of what questions they were going to ask, but I thought I did better with them, then I had done with Clive James.

DC: Anything else you'd like to tell us?

GG: There was one interesting occasion on a Saturday afternoon when my wife and I were in the shop. And my wife had become interested in what appeared to be a marriage ceremony being performed across the road in Hyde Park. In the last ten or fifteen years I suppose. Probably performed by a marriage celebrant. At the end of the ceremony the bride and groom -- the bride all dressed in white finery, crossed the road and the husband came into the shop while the wife stayed outside. And he bought a non-fiction book, my wife remembers, paid for it, and walked out to rejoin his new bride. That's the only occasion when that happened.

I should mention my deafness, because it concerns the noise of Castlereagh St. During the whole of my time on Castlereagh St, the trams trundled along towards the quay, past my door, and made a terrific noise -- but I sometimes think they didn't make as much noise as the screeching of brakes of big trucks and buses and heavy vehicles generally starting in first gear, which I had to put up with when I moved to Elizabeth St. Also in both streets, fire engines with their clanger often passed and made a lot of noise. Well, one of my customers, Sir George Halliday, who had a similar interest to that of our new Prime Minister, that is, in old and valuable clocks, told me that the noise was so bad that it would affect my hearing. Now Sir George Halliday, followed by his son, were Ear, Nose and Throat specialists, and that was really prophetic, because some years after, I developed partial deafness, and I think the noise of Castlereagh St and Elizabeth St had something to do with it. But it is an impediment to the conduct of my life.

DC: Thank you, George.


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