Introducing Michelle Wheatley of Reader’s Companion, an independent bookshop offering an eclectic mix of books, music, DVDs, cards, stationery and gifts. Open in its current form for four years, Michelle, along with Roy, has built Reader’s Companion into a thriving local business. Brian is also a part of the team, keeping the administration running like a well-oiled machine. A place where you might find a poetry reading one visit, a jazz evening another, and a circus performer still another. More than a bookstore, it is a vibrant community.
Can you tell us about your background?
Roy is from Tasmania, and I’m from Newcastle. Roy and Brian met in the ‘80s, and I met Brian in 1992/3 in Vanuatu, and we moved all over the world. Originally, we had a business consulting firm in the leisure and entertainment industry and contracts all over the world. The nature of the work meant we could be based anywhere. Up until recently, Roy was active in both the consulting firm and Reader’s Companion.
What brought you to Armidale?
Roy and I were looking for a patch of bush around the Gloucester area for a bit of an escape. We headed online and started searching further afield. We emailed each other the same 100-acre property in Armidale, and I drove up the next weekend to have a look at it. We could see there were cultural events and organisations we could get involved with. We’d have hated to get 20 years down the track and wonder “what if”.
What led you to buy a bookstore?
Roy and I had always bought our books here and when we discovered it was closing down, we didn’t want that to happen. We felt that Armidale, which is full of interested and interesting people, was the kind of place that couldn’t do without an independent book store. Neither of us had been in retail or the book industry, but we thought we could give it a go.
What makes Reader’s Companion different?
Initially, we just bought the existing stock, which was less than a quarter of what it is currently. Now I spend a lot of time going through smaller publishers and hunting out smaller imprints off bigger publishers. I stock the kind of things we would like and what we search for when we go to Sydney and Melbourne. We find interesting things that you simply can’t get anywhere else and would even have difficulty finding online.
Our vision was to create a community. I played this scene out in my head where a couple of people were saying, “Where will we meet? I’ll meet you at the bookshop”. We actively encourage people to come inside and sit and chat, get warm in winter and cool down in summer.
This is the longest we have been in one place. It’s this shop – and the community we feel we are part of – that’s keeping us here. Our customers have become friends.
And the Kombi?
We bought it because we liked it, and initially we kept it just ours. After a while, we thought it might be a nice idea to use the Kombi to look after our customers in surrounding towns. It is typical for us to blend our life with that of the shop. Everything just evolves.
Tell us about your evolution from novice to successfully running a thriving independent bookstore?
Our growth has been organic. We’ve proved to ourselves you can develop a business without investing a lot of money. Instead, we are always looking at how to use what we have. We focus on creating community, and it all evolves from there.
What challenges did you face?
When we first started, the commonly held view was “bookstores are dead; the Mall is dead”. More than once we were told, “You must be stupid”. We felt strongly that the Armidale community should be offered the same opportunities as those in the city. Now I can confidently claim that we have evolved into a truly vibrant community.
What would you like people to know about Reader’s Companion?
Don’t presume that we won’t have what you are looking for, that we’ll be more expensive, or that we can’t offer the standard offerings. If you are shopping online, we can order in for you. It takes the same amount of time as an online purchase and there will be no charge for shipping. Give us a chance: come and see what we have to offer.
What would you advise a business just starting out?
Have a passion and a love for what you are doing. Customers are discerning – they can see what you are passionate about. They quickly pick up on whether you are genuine or not.
What do you recommend for summer reading?
The Choke, Shadowland, Force of Nature and I recommend Ottolenghi’s new cookbook, Sweet.