Inside the Australian and New Zealand book industry

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Hill of Content: A brief history

Melbourne’s Hill of Content Bookshop recently celebrated its 90th birthday. Manager Andrew Robertson shares the store’s history:

Hill of Content Bookshop’s founder, A H Spencer was born in1886 at Balmain, Sydney. At 14 he was forced to leave school to work in a boot factory. After a few months he left and in 1900 he began work at Angus & Robertson where he worked for 22 years under the famous bookseller George Robertson. One of his regular early jobs was to deliver books to the Darlinghurst home of David Scott Mitchell, whose collection became the basis for the Mitchell Library.

Spencer wanted to open his own bookshop, but not wanting to open in opposition to his employer of two decades, decided to set up on his own in Melbourne.

He borrowed £1000 from the noted collector H L White (uncle of Patrick White) who said: ‘Try not to lose it, but if you do your best and fail and lose this money, try not to worry too much about it.’ The money was lent with no surety but Spencer was able to pay it back with seven percent interest within three years.

At this time Melbourne was going through a period of recession and gangsters were known to haunt the laneways of this part of Melbourne. Squizzy Taylor was on the run from police having skipped bail and violent confrontations in the city streets were not uncommon.

Spencer was told he was crazy to open a bookshop in this seedy part of Melbourne and so he set about devising a name which would cast a positive connotation to his new shop. The name for the shop came to him during a walk in the Fitzroy Gardens when ‘the elm-trees and the plane-trees and the poplars said, “Call it the Hill of Content”’.

And so in 1922 he opened the Hill of Content at 86 Bourke Street, the premises from which the business still operates today.

The original building was small and the family lived at the rear of the premises. In 1927, with the lease expiring, Spencer convinced the owners to demolish the old building and erect a new three-story one. While this was being done, the business was transferred across the road to the Eastern Market for several months in 1928.

In its early years visitors and customers included such luminaries as Dame Nellie Melba, John Masefield (an English poet who was here for the Victorian Centenary Celebrations in 1934), Lionel Lindsay, Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton, as well as various Governors and members of the medical and legal professions. At this time the Australian Parliament sat at the Victorian Parliament Building just one block away in Spring Street (while the State Parliament resided at the Royal Exhibition Buildings) and so many prominent politicians frequented the shop as well.

Spencer had hoped that his son would join the business but, after surviving five years’ service in the RAAF during the war, Greg Spencer was killed shortly after being demobilised when he was struck by two cars in succession on a dark and rainy Melbourne night. His death was a major blow to Spencer and although he continued to run the business for a further four or so years, his heart was no longer in it, and in 1951 he sold the business.

After his retirement Spencer published his autobiographical work The Hill of Content (1959), which highlighted the Sydney and Melbourne literary worlds from the turn of the century to the end of the Second World War.

Upon Spencer’s retirement the shop was purchased by Collins Booksellers and operated as a company store from 1952 until that company went into receivership in 2005. The owners of the Collins franchises in Sale and Bairnsdale organised franchisees to create a new company to buy the business and franchise rights. The Sale and Bairnsdale owners—the Watts and Johnston families—bought the Hill of Content, which now operates as an independent store under the Collins umbrella. Its manager and staff have complete autonomy to buy, market and sell the books that best reflect the tastes of the shops dedicated and longstanding clientele.

Under this new ownership/management model the Hill of Content has enjoyed a period of steady growth from 2005 to today, more than doubling the turnover during this period. The shop has expanded to cover two floors of the building built by Spencer in 1928, with its staff now eyeing off the third floor—currently occupied by Collins Booksellers head office!



Category: Features