Creative People

Interview · Mark Rubbo, Managing Director of Readings

Lucy Feagins
Lucy Feagins
23rd of August 2013
Mark Rubbo, managing director of Readings, Australia's largest independent bookstore, outside his Carlton store.  Photo - Sean Fennessy.
Readings, Carlton.  Photo - Sean Fennessy.
Readings' famous shop window in Carlton has a long history in the area as the place to advertise for a house mate!  Photo - Sean Fennessy.
Readings Monthly magazine has been going for 40 years in different iterations.  It's  edited in house by Belle Place.  Photo - Sean Fennessy.
One of Melbourne's most loved annual cultural events, The Melbourne Writers Festival kicked off yesterday, and whilst it's not reeeally TDF material in itself, we thought it would be an opportune time to talk to one of Melbourne's most successful independent retailers and much loved local heroes - Mark Rubbo, managing director of Readings! EVERYONE loves Readings.  It's the kind of place that has a nostalgic appeal for so many Melburnians - the sort of iconic local business that really has a character all its own, and becomes intertwined in the history of a city like ours.  Comprised of six stores across Melbourne, Readings is Australia's largest independent bookstore, and against all the odds - it's thriving.  It is SO encouraging to walk into the Carlton store (the first and largest Readings store) and see the place PACKED with people, no matter what day of the week.  Brilliant!  Whilst big name bricks and mortar retailers across Australia are still struggling to stay relevant in a fiercely competitive international market, Readings continues steadfast, week in week out, selling thousands of units of a product that everyone knows would be cheaper to buy online.  It's an incredible thing. Much has been made, too, of the hand Mark Rubbo played in the demise of Borders in Australia - a battle reluctantly fought by Mark and his defiant team after the international bookselling behemoth disingenuously plonked their flagship Melbourne store directly opposite Readings in Lygon street, Carlton in 2003.  They clearly underestimated Mark's resolve, and the staunchly loyal community Readings has fostered since first opening in Carlton in 1969.  Whilst Borders slashed prices to loss-leading lows in an effort to squeeze Readings out of the picture, Mark Rubbo played the only card he had - community.  With its focus on friendly, knowledgable customer service, its regular roster of in-store book signings and events, its free monthly magazine and other community-serving incentives, Readings wonderful local customer base continued to shop, choosing to pay full price for books they knew were being sold at 30%, 40% and even 50% off across the road.  It's one hell of a David and Goliath story - and a testament to the way Mark Rubbo does business. Mark bought Readings from Ross and Dot Reading (can you actually believe that was their surname!?) and Peter Reid (I am not making this up!) in 1976, with two business partners at the time.  In the 37 years that have since passed, Mark has built Australia's most successful independent bookstore slowly and honourably, with a great respect for his staff and his customers, and an intrinsic understanding of the central role bookshops can play in their local communities.  Case in point - Mark still works on the floor of his Carlton store almost every Saturday, chatting to customers he's knows for almost 40 years! In 2006 Mark was awarded the Order of Australia medal for service to the community and his support of Australian writers, and just in case you need further incentive to spend your book budget on home soil (!!), he is also responsible for The Readings Foundation, which ensures that 10% of all Readings’ profits go to projects in the community, literacy and the arts. Local retail simply doesn't get any better than this.  Our hats are firmly tipped to you today Mark Rubbo!  What a total legend.

Readings  Stats

· Readings collectively employs 90 full-time staff and up to 30 casuals across all of their six stores. The Carlton store alone employs about 60 staff. · 151,366 books are currently in stock across all six Readings stores! · 800,000 books were sold across Readings in 2012, with more than half of them sold in the Carlton store. · Readings have sold $1.1m worth of their gift cards to date, or 22,000 gift cards in total!
Tell us a little bit about your background – what did you originally study, and what were you doing before you became involved with Readings?
I studied Medicine and then Arts at Melbourne University. While I was at uni I worked part-time in the Melbourne University Bookroom in their 'record section' – my manager was Mr McCarthy – it was Mr, Mrs and Miss in those days! Then in 1972 I opened a record shop called Professor Longhair’s Music Shop in Lygon Street, Professor Longhair was a blues pianist from New Orleans who had a great influence on Dr John. I was particularly enamoured by Dr John in those days. In 1976 I bought Readings with my business partners – and voila, books!
In 1976 you became the owner of Readings, purchasing the business from founding owners Ross and Dot Reading, and Peter Reid. What was it about this then quaint little book shop, that struck a chord with you at the time and prompted you to become part of the business?
It was actually by accident that I fell into bookselling. The first Readings was opened in Lygon Street, Carlton by Ross Reading and his partner Dot and Peter Reid some time in 1969. It was close to the University of Melbourne and the centre of Melbourne's bohemian life, and therefore the perfect place for a bookshop. The '60s were a time of great cultural and social change and the books that Readings stocked reflected these upheavals. Readings, although small, soon made a name for itself making books available that weren't distributed in Australia. In 1976 Ross and Dot decided it was time for a lifestyle change, and approached me and my partners about buying the business. I had Professor Longhair’s Music shop in Carlton at the time. It seemed an easy decision to make. Somehow we managed to persuade our families to invest in the business and the deal was done. My business partners, Steve Smith and Greg Young, stayed in the music side of the business and I moved into the world of books. With the combination of books and music, and a great name for the business, Readings was a potent force. It was also something we could embrace with a passion – a way of making a livelihood by helping to disseminate some of the greatest ideas and literature around. It was also the beginning of the golden age in Australian publishing and writing, and we were determined that Readings would be an active participant in that process. It also helped that inner city Melbourne seemed to be the hub of much of the activity. The other thing was that the stuff sold, and we could move huge quantities of the right Australian titles.
What were your original goals for Readings, and did you ever anticipate the brand would grow and expand to include six locations across Melbourne?
When we bought Readings I don’t think we had any specific goals. To be frank it just seemed like a good fit and business opportunity. Our profit margin on LPs was only 27.5% but on books it was 35-40%, so that seemed wonderful... and the music companies were horrible to deal with! The goals evolved into an idea of Readings being able to make a difference – to encourage and support the development of Australian writing and ideas. The other goal that emerged was also to support local publishers. Without them writers wouldn’t have a chance. We love the independent publishers, but also have a great respect for the passionate people working in the Australian offices of multinationals like Penguin/Random House. Many years ago, the accommodation window at the Carlton shop was THE place to advertise for a house mate, so over time I thought it was a good idea to ask for a gold coin donation in return to be put back into the community. This collection of gold coins (coupled with collections from gift wrapping) eventually grew into what is now known as The Readings Foundation, whereby we now donate 10% of Readings’ profits to projects in the community, literacy or the arts. I’ve also worked as a retailer for over 40 years, and I do get a thrill just selling stuff!
Mark Rubbo works on the floor of the Carlton store every Saturday!  Photo - Sean Fennessy.
There is a distinct community spirit about Readings, which seems to have shielded you from some of the challenges facing many independent bookstores. Your loyal customers are more inclined to buy directly from you rather than buy online. And even after 30 years, you still personally work on the floor of the Lygon St store on Saturdays to get amongst them! What is about the Readings customer that is so unique, and what have been some of your strategies to keep this sense of community spirit alive and well at Readings?
Readings has always been enlivened by a thriving events program of literary and musical events throughout the year. It’s not unusual to wander into a Readings shop on a weekday evening to discover a book launch or reading in progress, wine glasses in hands and an author at the microphone, or an instore appearance by a local or international artist such as Patti Smith, Billy Bragg, Paul Kelly and Martha Wainwright. Readings is also a gathering place for writers, publishers, artists and intellectuals. Long-time customers include the likes of cartoonist Michael Leunig, actor Sigrid Thornton and property developer Morry Schwartz, as well as a veritable ‘who’s who’ of local writers. Helen Garner, whose novel Monkey Grip, set in Carlton and Fitzroy, was one of Readings’ most successful titles ever (over 3000 sold) is a regular sight among the shelves of the Lygon Street shop.
Readings' Carlton store.  Photo - Sean Fennessy.
Where other more commercial bookstores have failed, Readings has flourished. We’re always so encouraged to see the Lygon Street store not just busy but PACKED almost every day of the week! What do you feel are some of the key reasons for Readings ongoing success?
Promoting Australian writing has always been a personal passion and our business has grown with the growth of Australian publishing. Our Readings Monthly magazine does I think contribute to this buzz too. It’s been going for 40 years in different iterations. In the last ten years we have had some wonderful editors – Virginia Maxwell, Jo Case, Jess Au and now Belle Place – who have made it into something really worth reading. Readings employs over 120 staff in six shops around Melbourne, but despite its large scale operations, each Readings shop retains an intimate feel, with strong community ties and carefully selected ranges that reflect the character of the area and the tastes of their customers. I also hope that the fact that we care about the books is a factor in this. Readings does attract terrific people to work for it – fascinating, idiosyncratic people – it amazes me how good they are and let’s face it, no one works in the book industry for the money.
You’re a leader in Australia’s book trade and a recipient of the Medal of the Order of Australia for your contribution to this industry. With this in mind do you have any predictions for the future of your industry?
It is a very challenging time for the book industry. For all sectors sales have been in decline for the last couple of years. The collapse of Borders and Angus & Robinson have offered a bit of a reprieve for the booksellers that have survived, but it presents real challenges for publishers who have so many fewer outlets. The growth in e-books presents problems for bookshops and of course the huge share that online booksellers, especially the overseas ones, have is another challenge. It galls me that these monkeys don’t have to collect GST - they rip the guts out of local publishing and bookselling and on top of that they avoid paying tax. I think there will always be a desire for some people to browse and connect in physical bookshops - but will there be enough of them to sustain a vibrant bookselling and publishing community and support writers? I don’t know. Ultimately it’s the community’s choice - do they want us around? Their support through the till will determine that.
Readings' Carlton store employs around 60 staff.  Photo - Sean Fennessy.
Readings is known for having the broadest selection of books instore that appeal to all of your customers’ sensibilities, from popular fiction to the most obscure graphic novel. So we’d be interested to know what the big boss at Readings top 5 current favourite titles are?
1. Coal Creek by Alex Miller (released 1 September) 2. Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas (released 1 November) 3. Decade: 1970-1980 by Rennie Ellis 4. Sydney Moderns: Art Between the Wars by Deborah Edwards and Denise Mimmochi 5. Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia by David Hunt
Some of Marks's top picks, in store at the moment.  Photo - Sean Fennessy.
Which local Australian authors, publishers or other people within your industry are you inspired by the moment?
I admire them all so much, that in such times they keep going. I admire the creators particularly; they work knowing that that the prospect of creative or financial recognition is remote - still they persevere, and gives us works that move and define us. I am very fortunate to work in a field that is very generous of spirit - three authors who’s careers and works I’ve watched over the years have wonderful books coming out - Coal Creek by Alex Miller, Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas, and Eyrie by Tim Winton. I also love what Henry Rosenbloom does at Scribe Publications, with his amazing fiction editor Aviva Tuffield, he publishes wonderful new fiction but also he does great non-fiction from around the world - most of the time he knows they won’t pay for themselves - he just believes that the ideas in them should be available.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
Fortunately the beauty of my job is that no two days are ever the same. Check emails, talk to colleagues, stack some shelves, write reviews, have meetings with industry and colleagues, pack parcels, sell a few books and then to go a literary event that is held in any one of our shops and then... check more emails!
What would be your dream creative project?
I would like to build a bookshop from scratch, with a great Australian architect, where there was no budget for the build and no budget for the stock. I’d like to create a magical place that celebrates books and ideas.
What are you looking forward to?
It’s an interesting question. I’ll be 65 in a month or so. I’m really enjoying being older. I have worked very hard for many years so I am looking forward to not working so hard but also looking forward to working with a new generation of booksellers and creators who are equally excited about Australia’s writing future.

Melbourne Questions

Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?
Fitzroy – because I live there.
What and where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?
I had a wonderful meal at The European a couple of weeks ago with Tim Winton and a group of my bookselling colleagues. I loved it.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
At Readings Carlton.
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
My club… but it’s a secret.
We love Readings' clever collaborations with Melbourne illustrator Oslo Davis!  Photo - Sean Fennessy.

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