Clunes Booktown Festival
For 51 weeks of the year, the small businesses in the sleepy country town of Clunes struggle to attract customers. But on one magical weekend of the year their profits skyrocket and they can barely keep up with demand.
The rural town in western Victoria is home to the Clunes Booktown Festival, which draws more than 18,000 visitors and 50 book traders from all over Australia.
In a town of just 1520 people, the economic benefits are huge, particularly for the owners of Clunes’ six book shops.
On this one weekend of the year, hometown booksellers earn up to $10,000 – approximately triple their monthly earnings – trading rare, antique and secondhand books.
Clunes bookshop owner Robin Schmidt says the May festival keeps his store alive.
“If it wasn’t for that one weekend, the shop wouldn’t be here,” he says.
“It’s tempting to close the store down during the winter when you can barely pay the electricity bill, let alone yourself.”
Schmidt runs Everyman Books with another bookseller in Clunes. The shop opens only on weekends, when it can expect between 15 and 30 customers each day.
This compares to the festival when between 1000 and 2000 booklovers come through the doors.
“For the year, it represents about a third of our takings,” Schmidt says.
“We sell about 1000 books on the festival weekend, compared with 50 books on a normal weekend.
“The people who come to the festival are coming to buy books, not a cup of coffee. They are book people.”
Schmidt began selling books at the Clunes festival by commuting from his home in Melbourne and trading from a stall. He did this for two years before moving to the country town and setting up shop.
In addition to Everyman Books, Schmidt operates online book store Huc & Gabet, which makes up the majority of his earnings and helps him get through the lean times between festivals.
“Online is what I live off,” he says.
“For me, the shop is a little bit extra.”
The deputy chair of festival committee Creative Clunes, Graeme Johnstone, says Booktown was started in 2007 as a way to rescue a flagging community.
“The aim of it was a rural renewal program,” he says.
“Over the previous years, there were times when Clunes was fairly flat. We had lost businesses and the population was declining.”
The first festival pulled 6000 visitors – double the figure organisers had hoped for. Since then, Booktown has grown each year.
Not only does it inject $4 million into the local community, but Johnstone says it has seen 10 new local businesses open storefronts in the town plus more trading from home.
Population has boosted by almost 50 per cent – from 960 in 2006 to 1520 currently.
Australian Booksellers Association chief executive Joel Becker says the festival gives struggling secondhand booksellers a much-needed lifeline.
“I think it’s a terrific idea to take a town that had one to two book shops operating, that was pretty close to a ghost town, to a thriving bookselling community,” he says.
“It’s a terrific boon for the community as well as secondhand and antiquarian booksellers.”
A federal government report by PwC in 2011 revealed there were 2000 bookstores in Australia with chain, religious, education and secondhand and antique bookstores accounting for 10 per cent of them.
The emergence of eBay and Amazon as online used book marketplaces has presented a major threat to the sector, which not only relies on people to buy books but to sell them to store owners as well.
This recent change plus a rising number of cheap online stores and increasing retail rents have forced secondhand book traders to find new ways to be competitive, says Becker.
“Like a lot of retailers, the industry has had to adjust over the last few years to a lot of people moving to online to search for books,” he says.
“The Clunes festival helps a significant number of people, readers and other retailers, become more knowledgeable about these booksellers – because they’re certainly not in shopping centres.
“It gives them a higher profile and gives them a new customer base.”