Last week’s announcement that the Hill of Content bookshop building is set to be auctioned next month is reason for both sadness and alarm. At best, the Bourke Street building will be purchased by a sympathetic owner who wants the store to remain, at worst, Melbourne will lose yet another bookshop.
When I wrote last year that bookshops are vital to our city’s culture, I had more positive responses than anything else I’ve previously written. I didn’t expect to be writing about the topic so soon again.
Hill of Content isn’t so much a store as it is an institution. It typifies a kind of bibliographic Melbourne which is insistently waning. As the bookshop’s owner and manager Diana Johnston noted following the sale announcement, it’s not just the building itself that is heritage listed, but also many of its iconic internal features including the staircase. Beyond the physical though, over its 101-year-long history, the store has become, as Johnson says, “part of the fabric of Melbourne city”.
When it first opened in 1922, founder A.H. Spencer understood the primacy of location. Ensconced on the hill towards parliament, it is a highly desirable site. While Hill of Content says it is hoping future owners may allow them to stay, the reality of Melbourne’s redevelopment cannot be ignored, with Johnston telling The Age, “We own the name, so we can take it anywhere. The bookshop has moved before, and survived, so there’s no reason, if necessary, it can’t do it again.”
But the recent republication of the book The Hill of Content, by Spencer, contains reflections from contemporary writers and highlights how intrinsic the link between the store and the space is.
Chloe Hooper notes: “To pull the brass doorhandle of the Hill of Content and enter the high-ceilinged bookstore can give an uncanny feeling, the sense of an unexpected homecoming.”
Alexis Wright says: “To wander along the shelves and wonderfully displayed book tables; to discover new books and authors from near and far. I would always stay for as long as I could, just to be in the quietness of this world of books.”
Barry Jones’ affiliation with the bookshop goes back decades. He reflects: “For more than 75 years it has been a central element in my cultural landscape, where I have bought more books over a longer period than anywhere else.”