The Merchant of Fairness (est 1984)

Address: Stall 138, South Melbourne Market and 237A Whitehorse Rd, Balwyn

Phone: 9696 6545

From an interview with Rod that has been edited

I was a postie for 12 months, worked at a bank then rode cabs for a few years.

I went around the market selling all sorts of things to finance my university degree and marriage at that time.

But I gravitated towards books.

I always loved books, and ended up becoming a bookseller.

Photo by Tatiana C C Scott

I’ve been here and in the Balwyn shop for 35 years.

I was a casual stallholder for about six months before they allocated me this corner stall.

But when I started I had a single table.

I’d go out and buy deceased estates, bring them in and regular clients knew I had all sorts of things in the boxes.

I built this from scratch and now I’d be one of the older stall holders in the South Melbourne Market.

Photo by Tatiana C C Scott

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There’s two main reasons people sell books.

One would be increasing age and downsizing residentially, the other would be a death in the family. That’s the usual way books pass on to the greater community.

These days I tend to buy really good estates over 12 months. It might be $15,000 worth of books and I go back every few weeks to buy $500 or $600 worth. It suits them because they’re not denuded of their books too quickly. We have a nice relationship, a cup of tea and away we go.

People trust you to come to their home, so you have to honour that. Particularly for a widower. It’s quite a decision for them. They have enough on their plate, and they come to their books and think, “we need to get someone in.”

It’s very important the book seller can be trusted to do the right thing.

Photo by Tatiana C C Scott
Photo by Tatiana C C Scott

There is a great sentimental factor in books.

There’s so many different reasons why people buy them, and they are such useful transportable items. You can take them everywhere.

And there’s the artistic element. Some books are beautifully designed, or there might be a local or family history with a short print run but a dedicated audience. A lot of books are now being pulped and taken out of circulation which is increasing the value of the ones that are left.

It surprises me that more people aren’t going into the industry these days. Anyone with a bit of money behind them could buy a shop somewhere, pay it off gradually, live above it and have a wonderful life selling books.

There’s great potential for somebody to do that.

Photo by Tatiana C C Scott

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In here we have classics, hardbacks and paperbacks, crime novels and esoterics. 

There’s also sport, local and general history, philosophy, militaria, children books, poetry, a jam label set from the 1930’s, gift cards, an old photograph of a Melbourne tram and more collectable books over here.

There’s one I hadn’t heard of when I picked it up. A Ugaritic textbook written in the 60s or 70s by an academic. Anyone studying languages, ancient civilisations or religion would be very interested in that. There’s a limited market, but when the right person sees it they’ll be ecstatic.

A lot of it is serendipity.

Earlier today I put aside five Russian mathematic books. Some mathematician will come in and think “goodness gracious, I never thought I’d see that.”

I love the unusual and having books no one else has.

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You develop warm professional friendships in this industry.

People come to me and say, “don’t ever leave.”

“We love the shop.”

There’s a lot of people discovering the stall for the first time, but there’s also many people who grew up in the area and regularly come back. Being in a central location, the South Melbourne market draws people from all different suburbs. There’s continuity in all different ways.

There are people who walk by who aren’t really customers but I’ve known them since they were about 15. Now they have 3-4 kids of their own and they wave when they walk by. It’s all very convivial.

Everyone says good morning to each other, the other stall holders are waving, having humorous exchanges and so on.

It’s a special feeling being a part of the market community.

What booksellers need is a point of difference.

They have to sell the unusual and put fair value on things.

And while the internet has had a great impact, there’s a huge amount of fraudulent pricing out there.

A book might be advertised for $300, the next one down might be $50 and the actual price in Australia might be $25.

You have to be very careful.

In a way it’s helped bookselling because the good stores will be offering books at fair prices.

Photo by Tatiana C C Scott
Photo by Tatiana C C Scott

I’m reading a lot of espionage at the moment.

I’ve read virtually every genre at some stage, but I like espionage because it’s set in different places around the world. You’re dealing with facts in a fictional way which expands the mind.

I’m still passionate about bookselling and I love the physicality of it. There’s an alacrity at the end of the day but it keeps me fit. Why complain about it? It’s better than sitting in a chair.

And I love the fluency of communication. The fact that you get so much knowledge from people. I reckon it’s the best form of retail, and those who might engender animosity are not worth having as customers anyway.

I just let it go their way, and concentrate on those who are courteous and decent to deal with.

Photo by Tatiana C C Scott

There’s the romance of selling to people directly.

Of calling Harry or Betty and saying, “after five years I found that book you wanted,”

“It’s a beautiful copy.”

They trip over themselves to pick it up.

That service to the public is wonderful.

Photo by Tatiana C C Scott

Written by Aron Lewin with all photos and videos by Tatiana C C Scott

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Other articles:

South Melbourne Market


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