Behind the Shelves with Matilda Bookshop
An Adelaide Hills bookshop looks forward and back, respecting its forty-year history while embracing new technology and new methods.
Perhaps it’s the climate that makes the South Australia town of Stirling, 15 km north of the Adelaide CBD, such a community of booklovers. It has a reputation as the wettest place in South Australia which would encourage many people to sit at home with the pleasure of a good book.
That pluviosity – and the foresight of the town planners who planted the area with European favourites like maple, elm and oak – mean that Matilda Bookshop is surrounded by many richly coloured trees, even in the busy shopping precinct of Mt. Barker Road.
Co-owners Joanna Hill and Gavin Williams have been custodians of Matilda Bookshop for over fifteen years, but the shop has been a fixture of the community for over forty.
They take their role in the community seriously.
“The bookshop must stand for something,” says Gavin. “To some extent, it needs to represent us in the community. In Australia, there are any number of societal and political challenges, and the books on our shelves have to reflect these issues.”
It’s not just the local community that Williams is committed to. He’s currently on the board of both the BookPeople (formerly known as the Australian Booksellers Association) and the Indigenous Literary Foundation.
Matilda Bookshop sits on Peramangk Land and Gavin felt strongly that the business should support a ‘Yes’ vote in the recent referendum on the constitutional recognition of indigenous people in Australian, “The Voice”.
“All of us here wholeheartedly supported it. We’ve taken a gentle leadership position within the community on matters like this, while being fully aware that not everyone may agree with us on every aspect. We are content with walking the fine line of being proud of who we are, what our bookstore represents, and the principles we stand for, all while making it commercially viable.”
On the topic of commercial viability, Gavin says that the pandemic has changed the marketplace but it’s too early to tell how permanent those changes will be.
“The pandemic was a challenging time for many bookstores emotionally,” he says. “Sales did increase but we’re seeing this growth period plateau as cost of living pressures increase along with the price of books.”
The lockdown aspect of the pandemic response presented major challenges to Australian bookshops, encouraging many to embrace online and cloud technologies in order to serve customers who were unable to visit in person.
Matilda’s online store is the public face of their cloud-based point-of-sale and inventory system, CirclePOS. “It was an absolute godsend,” Gavin says. “Obviously particularly during lockdown, being able to sell books online certainly saved us from going under, and many other bookshops would tell the same story as well.”
Gavin was surprised that the shift to a cloud system changed more about Matilda than just their IT technology:
“Embracing this modern system has reshaped my perspective as a bookseller. Once you begin using a system that connects you with other bookshops and also shares data intuitively, you become more invested in the broader community of bookshops, the people who work in them, and their owners. This shift in perspective opens your mind to the limitless possibilities of what you can achieve.”
The bookselling business has always been a fascinating combination of competition and collegiality – co-opetition, if you will. The changes and challenges that have occurred due to the pandemic are encouraging stores to connect with each other, share ideas and support each other:
“With our old system, you didn’t feel connected, and you certainly wouldn’t reach out to other bookshops to exchange ideas because those systems never changed. But with our current system, it’s a different story. It’s an ever-evolving platform that fosters collaboration and innovation. I often chat to other shops in Australia, asking how they interpret certain situations. Essentially, it has enabled us to integrate ourselves into a wider community of booksellers who support each other. We discuss events we’re hosting, share ideas on how to sell more books, and much more. The new system, for us, is a launching pad for becoming more deeply engaged with other bookshops, which, as I mentioned earlier, has opened my mind to the endless possibilities that being a bookstore can offer.”
Gavin is also strong advocate for Yourbookstore.io: “I think it has some really significant potential. In the end, it’s simple: anything that helps people buy books from local bookshops like ours rather than from Amazon is a good thing. We don’t want to go into space any time soon.”
There are few more passionate and committed booksellers in Australia than Gavin Williams, a believer in traditional local bookshop values along with a vision for a bright future for a business he has given nearly 16 years of his life to:
“I live and breathe the bookshop. It’s an extension of both myself and Joanna. For us, it’s more than just a livelihood; it’s something more profound. Along with that comes the necessity of being significant. It’s more than just four walls and products.”
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