Way back in 1969 when Ross Reading, his partner Dorothy and Peter Reid opened a small bookstore in Carlton, they could hardly have envisioned that almost fifty years later it would have become an iconic and internationally acclaimed destination for book lovers worldwide.
Mark Rubbo bought the business in 1976. ‘ I had always hung around Carlton; my father was a Professor at Melbourne University and I studied there; our family home was in Parkville and then my share houses were in Carlton. In 1972 I opened a record shop, Professor Longhair’s Music Shop a few doors up from Readings. At the time Carlton was Melbourne’s artistic, bohemian and intellectual hub. That and its proximity to the University made it one of the best places in Australia to sell the books and music that interested Ross and I.’
By the time Ross approach Mark to buy Readings in 1976, Mark had developed his music business, joining forces with record store owners, Greg Young and Steve Smith. ‘In 1976, Ross approached me and asked if I was interested in buying Readings. He wanted a lot of money, $50,000 (about $300,000 in today’s terms) but I saw it as a great opportunity; I was getting jaded just selling music, and had always loved books. We raised the money from Greg and my families, changed our name to Readings Books and Music, and expanded the book sections in the other shops. I looked after the book side and Steve and Greg the music side.’
In 1983, while attending a bookseller’s conference in Brisbane, Mark met Robert Brown from University of Queensland Press. ‘He told me how they organised monthly events with writers and would get up to 200 people… Brisbane at the time was a very conservative backwater… I thought that if they could get 200 people, then, in Melbourne, we could get thousands!’
Mark worked with Greg Hocking and Iain Stewart to run an event with Helen Garner, Robert Drewe and Gerald Murnane, ‘it was fantastic, and we packed the house!’. Mietta O’Donnell and Tony Knox of Mietta’s approached Mark, and soon Readings events at Mietta’s were selling out. Mietta’s friend James Strong from Australian Airlines was approached to help bring in writers from interstate, with the first being Kate Grenville, ‘She arrived at Mietta’s very excited; Mr Strong had put her in First Class’. In the first few years more writers and spaces opened up and events were held with Bill Bryson, Peter Carey, Tim Winton, Shane Maloney, John le Carré and Annie Proulx ‘just to name a few’. Today, Readings hosts around 400 events annually!
In addition to events, Readings cultivated community by using their shops to let locals advertise jobs, events and share houses, ‘it became the go-to spot to find somewhere to live… We were building up all these little communities.’ These little communities continued to grow, and armed Readings with the ability to defeat competition, even when it came in the form of US giant, Borders (which opened metres from Readings Carlton in 2003).
‘Our Carlton location had become one of the leading bookshops in Melbourne and Australia… I felt a competitor would like some of that action’ Mark recalls. Prior to Borders’ arrival, Mark and Steve had cashed in their Super to buy a bigger premise. ‘We had a shop big enough to offer people a range, and also to host bigger events. When Borders came we were in a much better place; our customers rallied around us and it became their fight too. People made a point of shopping with us, even though they knew the same book across the road was cheaper.’
While Readings survived (Borders closed), it wasn’t immune to the tsunami of eCommerce that swept in a few years later. ‘Our industry was hit badly by the likes of Amazon and Book Depository. We went early online line, and kept on investing more and more (we still are); initially, we tried to match our competitors’.’ After ‘haemorrhaging money’ Readings focused on being ‘more creative with offers, differentiating ourselves from those that offer the cheapest price’. This included spending more time understanding their customer and working with The Retail Doctor who conducted a huge survey of their audience. ‘The results were very illuminating – almost everybody loved us, loved what we did – our events, our service, our range, our monthly magazine – the surprising thing was that although they loved us, they didn’t shop exclusively with us,’ admits Mark. ‘The first thing we had to acknowledge was that people would use different channels to get their books – us, online, eBooks – and we had to respect that, so we had to concentrate on doing what we do to the best of our ability, and give them reasons to keep on shopping with us.’
Mark now views online as ‘another form of marketing, and a way of building our community digitally’, a community that’s nurtured by Marketing Manager Nina Kenwood and her team via online and offline content, email, social media, a monthly magazine and, most recently, a podcast.
So, after thousands of community-building events and almost half a century running Readings, what’s Mark’s advice for other small business owners? ‘I don’t see Readings as just a retailer… Be different and DO NOT try to beat the competitors on price. If you are different you will build up a loyal core.’