Dirty Library Trilogy, part 2: Readers’ advisory at the World’s Freakiest Bookstore

In the second of three features pushing the boundaries of what librarians can learn from pop culture, we take a visit to Melbourne bookstore Polyester Books and talk readers’ advisory with one of the most provocative booksellers I’ve ever met.

Polyester Books – the self-proclaimed ‘World’s Freakiest Bookstore’ – spells trouble. It did from the moment I discovered it.

I was visiting Melbourne for the first time and a friend recommended an alternative bookshop at the far end of Brunswick Street in Fitzroy.

I had no idea where this was, so on a visit to the State Library of Victoria, I asked one of the youth librarians to help me find it. She googled ‘Polyester Books’ on a State Library computer terminal and we were both immediately confronted with the store’s incredibly NSFW logo.

As Polyester proprietor Jo Emslie puts it, “If that sign upsets you, don’t look around our shop, ‘cos your head’s gonna explode!”

Polyester Books, Melbourne
Polyester Books, Melbourne

Yet Polyester’s commitment to supplying all kinds of books, DVDs, zines, art, and periodicals is deeply relevant to the mission of 21st century librarians. I dropped in to the shop for a browse and was impressed to find the likes of obscure Austrian novelist Hermann Broch on the shelves alongside the more eyebrow-raising fare. 

So what can librarians learn from the World’s Freakiest Bookstore?

 

These days, I’m increasingly fascinated with readers’ advisory, the branch of librarianship which involves recommending new reads to library users. Finding the right items to engage, inspire, and extend the interests of library clients might just be the coolest thing librarians do.

Today, library holdings encompass DVDs, games, music, local studies and family history materials, virtual resources, and much more. 21st century readers’ advisory principles help users cross the boundaries of genre, author, and media.

Auckland Libraries Create a Character Competition featuring Scott PilgrimFor example, someone who enjoyed the Scott Pilgrim movie might find their librarian recommending the original comic books on which the film was based; music by some of the Canadian indie bands on the soundtrack; video games that inspired Scott Pilgrim’s 8-bit aesthetic; or even comic book workshops like those run in Auckland, New Zealand.

Readers’ advisory goes even further than this: it also means that public librarians are committed to offering users free, non-judgmental access to material of all kinds.

A similar ethos underpins Jo Emslie’s work at Polyester Books. The store, an icon of Melbourne’s Fitzroy district, has sold politically, aesthetically, and sexually provocative material for almost thirty years.

Jo hasn’t changed the bookstore too much since she took up the reins, respecting Polyester’s existing traditions and clientele – although she admits, “The shop had been run by men for a really long time, so I did add a feminist section when I took over!”

Jo describes her regulars as “Polyster people”: “We have a real affinity with our customers…they are people who click straight away with the atmosphere and ethos of the store; they get what we’re all about.”

Polyester are stockists of some pretty strong stuff. Jo admits she’s “a little bothered” by some of the material on her shelves: “There’s some way out books in the politics section – material relating to drugs, the Unabomber, and so on – but we want people to have access and make up their minds for themselves.

“How do you know people are numbnuts unless you can read what they wrote?”

This is a great, if unconventionally worded, motto for librarians! 

Public libraries are meant to be subversive; they exist to fulfil the radical notion that every member of the public can get free, high-quality access to the full range of society’s knowledge and culture.

While education seems increasingly to tend towards standards- and test-based approaches, which simply encourage students to jump through hoops set by government bodies, libraries offer an alternative space of self-directed learning – covering every kind of topic, from the formal to the freaky. 

Libraries are places where people can explore the realms of knowledge and culture on their own terms. R. David Lankes, presiding genius behind the Atlas of New Librarianship, puts it this way: “The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities.”

For librarians interesting in navigating the wilder corners of our culture, Polyester provides an intriguing possible role model.

Jo says her work is about getting people to engage with original material directly. “We’re trying to kick people in the head and say, ‘You should be fucking reading this!”

Of course, revolution doesn’t always pay the bills, and a lot of Polyester’s business comes from people looking to buy something only slightly cheeky and transgressive – a hash cookbook, a Robert Crumb anthology – as a present for a friend.

Jo is sanguine about this: “It’s okay that some people see us as a kind of edgy gift shop…you can’t start subverting people until they come in the door!”

Great libraries around the world already work with booksellers to look at how readers relate to their product. The New York Times recently published a piece on how libraries are exploring bookstore-like models as Amazon displaces the traditional community bookstore. And great stores like the Bookman’s chain in Arizona already provide excellent examples for librarians interested in creating outreach programmes for their community. But what can you learn from Polyester’s example? How freaky does your library dare to go?

2013 has arrived – what is your library’s New Year’s Resolution? Perhaps to be more naughty; to push boundaries in the name of literacy? Stay tuned for the next instalment of the ‘Dirty Library Trilogy’, where guest writer Jordi Kerr will be showing us what librarians can learn from the hard, fast, and nasty world of roller derby!

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