Read centre: Bookselling in the Alice with Red Kangaroo Books
Alice Springs’ Red Kangaroo Books is likely the only bricks-and-mortar bookshop between Port Augusta, Darwin, Broome and Broken Hill, and serves a community of academics, health professionals and artists. Manager Bronwyn Druce shares her bookseller’s diary.
Red Kangaroo Books owner John Capper came to Alice Springs in 2001, initially to work at the local television station. In 2007, with retirement on the horizon after 50 years in the television industry, John’s thoughts turned to what to do next. Of course, buy a bookshop!
How hard could it be to run a small bookshop dealing in Australian books with six or seven competitors, including a couple of franchise operations, in a regional town of 28,000, of whom no more than 5000 could be described as rusted-on book readers? Answer: hard, but given we recently celebrated 10 years at the store, we can look back with some satisfaction that we must have done something right because we think we might be the only bricks-and-mortar bookstore still standing between Port Augusta, Darwin, Broome and Broken Hill.
Alice Springs is not the outback town of popular conception. It is a modern town with a considerable reading population of academics, health professionals, art specialists, environmentalists, linguists, bureaucrats, engineers and mining specialists. This adds up to readers of eclectic tastes. We stock a large range of books that cover Indigenous history and art; Indigenous language books; local and regional history; biographies of local and larger-than-life heroes; fiction; children’s books; and flora, fauna and natural history books. Our customers tell us that many of these books cannot be found anywhere else.
I have been working in the store for four years. Our wonderful sales team consists of one full-time and two part-time employees. One of our staff members is a published author and the other is an archaeologist. They keep the customers returning, and many out-of-state visitors tell us that their friends have said they should visit Red Kangaroo Books at their earliest opportunity. Our bookshop is often a destination for visitors. They arrive with their luggage for a long browse and a yarn. Our most requested book by overseas travellers is the iconic A Town like Alice by Nevil Shute.
We actively support local authors with their stories about the region, and these books sell well. Our well-read customers always attend the book launches and book readings. One of our bestselling books over the past five years has been the self-published graphic novel The Long Weekend in Alice Springs by Craig San Roque and illustrated by Joshua Santospirito.
As an independent bookstore, we get to choose what books we want to stock. Over the years, we have improved our ability to order the right books for our market by listening to our customers and generally keeping an eye out for any books that they would expect us to stock. We have our own bestseller lists as what sells for the rest of the country does not necessarily apply here. For example, we have learnt that although the Alice is sports mad, nobody wants to read about sport except in the local newspaper.
On the upside, we’ve been known to sell a large proportion of books that might not have the same popularity in other places. For example, we sold over 450 copies of the book Every Hill Got a Story by Central Land Council (Hardie Grant) when it was first released in 2015, and it continues to sell well. Also extremely popular in our store is Traditional Healers of the Central Desert by the NPY Women’s Council (Magabala Books).
One of the unique challenges facing a bookseller in Alice Springs is the tyranny of distance. We’ve had to tackle transport costs, delays and lost shipments; miscommunication with suppliers and clients due to different time zones; and wrangling logistics for bookstore events with well-known authors. Sometimes you hear the question, ‘Where is Alice Springs?’. All of these things absorb considerable time, leaving us with less time to evaluate the usefulness of the latest industry products, and marketing and business strategies.
We have focussed on creating good relationships with our customers and other businesses in town. We take the time to get to know our customers, to spend time talking and listening to them. And remembering their names! We cannot compete with the large online stores such as Amazon or the Book Depository, but we can offer a space where our customers can browse our books and have a chat with our capable staff.
One of our most rewarding relationships has been with the NT Writers Festival, which is held in Alice Springs every two years. It’s very popular with local readers, and writers’ sessions book out weeks in advance. This year was our third year as the official festival bookseller.
Recent bestsellers at Red Kangaroo Books
- Too Many Cheeky Dogs (Johanna Bell & Dion Beasley, A&U)
- Arrernte Stories about Birds (Therese Ryder, Batchelor Press)
- Tjulpu and Walpa: Two Children, Two Roads (NPY Women’s Council Aboriginal Corporation)
- Dark Emu (Bruce Pascoe, Magabala Books)
- The Crying Place (Lia Hills, A&U)
- Trouble (Kieran Finnane, UQP)
- Position Doubtful (Kim Mahood, Scribe)
- Pictures from My Memory (Lizzie Ellis, Aboriginal Studies Press)
- Dew and Broken Glass (Penny Drysdale, Recent Work Press).