Podcasts & Books

Melbourne’s Best Bookshops

By James Shackell
10th Aug 2017


You know who you are. You felt a little buzz inside when you read the headline of this article. When faced with a bookstore your inner voice can always justify spending on a book. The reason varies from the classic, "My bookshelf wouldn't be complete without it", to the desperate, "I know I have a huge pile of books to read but I need this one". While you aren't averse to the e-book, you're still a book sniffer at heart.

It doesn't stop there. You are the market for anything book-related: an iPad cover shaped as a book; all those Penguin Classic-themed tea-towels, pencils, journals, mugs. An 'I Love Books' t-shirt anyone? You dream of a room of floor-to-ceiling book shelves filled with books and a big, cosy armchair.

So here you go, Melbourne. In honour of Love Your Bookshop Day, here are the city's best bookstore and bookshops. The independent, the specialty, the second hand and the chain. Read 'em and weep. 

The Independent Bookstores

Readings | Carlton

The Big Kahuna of Melbourne independent bookstores. Readings Carlton was actually named the best bookstore on earth in April 2016, which is no mean feat. The location helps, of course: directly opposite the bustling Nova Cinema, and with neighbours like Tiamo and Milk The Cow. There’s always time for a quick pop-in to Readings. The new release selection to the left is always up-to-date and interesting, but if you push past, deeper into the stacks, you’ll find a top-notch collection of travel, design, architecture and history. A little something for everyone, with some of the friendliest service in town. It’s clearly a winning formula.

The Paperback Bookshop | CBD

This is how all bookshops should look. Cramped and musty, practically overflowing with paperbacks, stacked in such dense and precarious constellations that any semblance of Dewey Decimal order is almost impossible. Wandering the isles at Paperback should take all of 15 seconds (it’s that small), but there are hidden gems practically everywhere. You’ll be lucky to get out of there in under an hour. It’s the book equivalent of Ollivander’s wand shop.

Hill Of Content | CBD

At 94 years of age, Hill of Content is Melbourne’s oldest bookstore. A charming shop by the corner of Exhibition and Bourke streets in the city, this two-story treasure is a must for book-lovers. Upon entering, readers will find a small and savvy selection of magazines to the right, featuring the likes of The Lifted Brow, Womankind and The New Yorker. The ground floor is largely filled with new releases and fiction titles, while upstairs delves into classic literature, art, philosophy and travel. Hill of Content also stock a small selection of gifts and reading accessories, one of our favourites being the clever tote bags by Out of Print.

Avenue Bookstore | Albert Park

Avenue is located right in the heart of Albert Park Village and is beloved by local book fiends. Focusing on new title releases across all categories, you can bet you’ll be able to get your hands on the best fresh reads from both Australian and international authors. Kids will be spoilt for choice here as the store has an extensive children’s selection, from picture books to young adult novels and a number of gift ideas (just in case you feel like spoiling them a bit more). For the especially keen, Avenue runs a monthly book club with nibbles and wine provided by Albert Park Deli and Trembath & Taylor.

The Grumpy Swimmer | Elwood

There’s nothing to be grumpy about in here. We dig a bookshop that can combine a love for the written word and a penchant for sharp design and beautiful homewares. We know where to head when we want to get lost between the pages while surrounded by Uashmama paper bags, Robert Gordon ceramics and Pony Rider textiles. The Grumpy Swimmer has built a warm community of book-lovers through their book club, poetry readings and storytelling nights. Despite its small size, The Grumpy Swimmer customers return time and time again for the carefully curated range of titles and friendly staff.

Coventry Bookstore | South Melbourne 

South Melbourne delight Coventry Bookstore is another shop that will deliver the goods on service and content from a small location. Owner Stephen Hepburn takes great pride in the store reads and loves connecting with his customers. Whether looking for yourself, a friend or a loved one, Hepburn is always willing to talk tastes and offer recommendations. Although stocking a reasonable selection per genre, Coventry is a must for cooking and design-lovers. For occasional events and author meet-and-greets, head to the store website.

The Sun Bookshop | Yarraville

There’s more than a dollop of old-world charm to this former candy bar turned bookshop, sitting snug inside Yarraville’s Sun Theatre building. Owner and operator Deb Force (great name btw) opened the doors back in 1998, and Melbourne’s west has loved it ever since. There’s a thoughtful mix of coffee table fillers on the shelves, with a focus on upcoming Aussie authors. There’s a monthly book club open to the public, and even a kids’ bookshop (The Younger Son—get it?) across the road. A true Yarraville gem.  

Eltham Bookshop | Eltham

Montsalvat may be Eltham’s cerebral, artistic soul, but Eltham Bookshop is its heart. A warm and cosy spot, tucked onto the main strip, just around the corner from the excellent Third Chapter. This is a traditional bookshop, which means floor to ceiling shelves, colourful kids displays and the kind of old-school hospitality you’d usually associate with a 90s Meg Ryan movie. Owner Meera Govill has created a little pocket of reading pleasure, out among the gum trees, and it’s hard to pass this way without stopping in for a browse.  

The Specialty Bookstores

Embiggen Books | CBD

We guarantee the owners/staff will be nudging you out at closing time. This place does atmosphere with a capital 'A'...and ambience with a capital 'A' too, come to think of it. You’ll spot Embiggen in what has actually in what has become a very bookish quarter, with the State Library of Victoria around the corner and the Wheeler Centre across the street. The collection is niche (Embiggen’s website calls it "curated"). If you’re looking for the latest John Grisham thriller, you may not find it here. But you will definitely find specialist books on design, art, photography and architecture. You might also spy the secret cupboard hidden behind a bookshelf. Pro tip: don't miss the fascinating selection of curios, like a 100-million-year-old dinosaur tooth, in the wire cabinet.

Metropolis Bookshop | CBD

Fatigue might have something to do with it, but a lot of people don’t know of Metropolis, the city’s specialist art and design bookshop. Here’s a hint: it’s the door on the third floor of Curtin House, the one you walk straight past on your Everest-like ascent to the Olympian heights of Rooftop Bar. The current owners are Sally Fethers and Tim Peach, a power team that relocated the business to the current 1920s-style space. Metropolis is THE place to go for anything graphic design, art, pop culture or music. It’s basically Melbourne’s answer to Kinokuniya. BYO oxygen tank.

Perimeter Books | Thornbury

Independent publishing love is what it’s all about at Perimeter Books. The focus here is on small press titles, art and design books and zines. Having recently presented at MOMA’s New York Art Book Fair, this humble little Melbourne bookstore is taking big strides in supporting both local and international names in the independent publishing industry. Boasting clean lines and loads of natural light, Perimeter is a dream for the book-lover meets minimalist meets design-enthusiast.

NGV Design Store | Southbank

Along with knick knacks and curious relating to its current exhibitions, the NGV Design Store has an extensive collection of art, photography and design books, plus copies of the Gallery’s own bi-monthly magazine. If you can pull yourself away from holding your hand in the waterfall wall and giggling like a kid, it’s worth an hour’s browse. Definitely one for the coffee table crowd.  

The Little Book Room | Carlton North

If you fell in love with the 90s hit You’ve Got Mail (and if you didn’t, you’re an inhuman monster) you’ll adore The Little Book Room. It’s a specialist kids bookstore in Carlton North that stocks everything from baby’s first book to middle fiction for the over 10s. Just like ‘Shop Around The Corner’, there are story time sessions for babies and toddlers every Thursday and Friday at 10:30am (a minor miracle, in the age of the iPhone). The range of picture and young fiction books is seriously impressive. There’s the classics, sure (that hungry caterpillar never gets old), but The Little Book Room makes an effort to stay on the cutting edge of children’s literature.

Books For Cooks | Queen Vic Market

We had to include a cookbook shop, right? Books For Cooks is pretty self-explanatory. It’s a shop that stocks cookbooks, and you’ll find it inside the Queen Vic Market, on Therry St (relocated from its 1850s Victorian terrace on Gertrude St, where it lived for the better part of 15 years). Books For Cooks is technically the country’s only bookstore dedicated to the culinary arts. You’ll find the latest Zumbo dessert book, obviously, but there’s also a carefully stocked range of rare and old books, including handwritten recipes from the 1700s. The guys are seasoned pros.

The Second Hand Bookstores

Grub St Bookshop | Fitzroy

You can't miss this Fitzroy institution, with its trestle tables of well-priced used books nestled between boutiques, bars and ice cream stores on Brunswick Street. Grub Street has occupied the same site for almost 30 years, and remains an archetypal second-hand bookshop. Think long aisles, highly specialised sections (where else can you find entire shelves devoted to books on AFL?), books piled high and seemingly ready to topple over, and a grab bag of trash and treasure titles.

City Basement Books | CBD

Having moved from its original Elizabeth Street digs to a Flinders Street abode in 2010, City Basement Books stands as arguably Melbourne CBD's best second-hand bookstore. Bookworms will find an eclectic range of titles, spanning biographies, history, arts and entertainment and fiction, and prices are reasonable. New stock arrives on a regular basis, with store owners regularly alerting customers to recently arrived titles on Facebook and Twitter.

The Searchers | Fitzroy

Half record store, half bookstore, The Searchers is the type of place where you can waste away hours without noticing. Long racks of vinyl records dominate the centre of the room, while striking floor-to-ceiling bookshelves feature thousands of pre-loved, reasonably priced titles. Understandably there's an emphasis on music and film titles, but most genres are catered for. Newly arrived and rare books and records are displayed in the window.

Alice’s Bookshop | Carlton North

According to the Alice's Bookshop's website, 'browsers, thinkers, readers, [and] dreamers are all welcome.' Which is good – because, as one of Melbourne's longest running second-hand bookstores (almost 30 years) – Alice's attracts customers from all over Melbourne, in search of a specific title or just wanting to browse. More than 17,000 books are on show over four rooms, with literature, music, psychology and philosophy particularly well represented.

Syber’s Books | Windsor & Caulfield 

Husband and wife team, Penny and David, operate Syber's Books over two locations in Windsor and Caulfield. The Windsor branch is the longer running of the pair, and features more than 75 shelves of stock (as well as some gorgeous cats, who spend their days sleeping and greeting customers). From science fiction and true crime to children's novels, chances are you'll find it here. Over at Caulfield, there's plenty of history, biographies, psychology and general fiction.

Bookbarn | Daylesford 

Not technically in Melbourne, but this one is worth the drive. You’ll find Bookbarn down by the lake at Daylesford (just hook a left before you hit the main strip). Its dusty shelves are stocked with a good collection of rare and secondhand books, including a big section on local Australian writers. The perfect spot for an afternoon’s fossicking among the racks. Find a few gems, then kick back with scones, jam and cream at the in-store cafe. Avoid the crowds by coming during the week—it’s a bit hectic on Sundays...

The Chain Bookstores

Dymocks | CBD

It might lack the dog-eared charm of Melbourne’s second-hand bookstores, but there’s still something wonderful about Dymocks subterranean bunker in the CBD. It might be the sheer concentration of reading material here. We’re going to go out on a limb and say it’s the biggest bookstore left standing in Melbourne, especially since Borders packed up its bags. Descend the escalators and you’ll notice your phone reception dies. No distractions, just hour after hour or happy book browsing. Pro tip: there are no chairs in Dymocks, but if you don’t mind sitting on the floor like a weirdo, head up to the mezzanine level, there’s a quiet nook there where no-one will bother you.

The Book Grocer

Charm factor: zero. Value factor: extreme. You will have seen Book Grocers popping up all over Melbourne. They seem to exist in a binary state of either ‘Just Opened!’ or ‘Closing Down!’ It’s during these closing periods that you need to pounce. All books are usually slashed to just $6 a pop (even the massive doorstop-esque tomes). You can do some serious damage here with $50 in your pocket. The range isn’t fantastic (you can’t have it all, right), but if you’re looking to stock up on the classics, there’s usually a decent selection of Penguin etc.

Bookstore Bars

Buck Mulligan’s

Book in one hand, glass of fine Irish whiskey in the other. What could be better? That’s the thinking behind Buck Mulligan’s, the city’s new whiskey bar cum bookstore. There’s a catch though: it only stocks books written by Irish authors (you can’t help but wonder if they get the ‘Travel Bookshop’ issue that plagued Hugh Grant in Notting Hill). The whiskey selection is superb and features a number of hard-to-find Irish bottles. If your literary taste runs to James Joyce, you’re in excellent luck. Maybe after a few glasses Ulysses will make more sense...

Willows & Wine

Our new favourite reading nook, and a brilliant idea to boot. Willows is the brainchild of Alice Wheeler. It’s a pre-loved bookshop and wine bar all in one. The rustic wood shelves are stocked with a thoughtful mix of weather-beaten paperbacks, hand picked by Alice from various op-shops and jumble sales. Behind the bar there’s an excellent wine selection, with a particular focus on local bottles. Throw in moody candlelight, old-school board games (and a couple of Connect Four sets) and you’ve got the recipe for the ultimate first Tinder date. 

Image credit: Willows & Wine | Griffin Simm

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