Young, Emma. The Last Bookshop. Fremantle Press, 2021. RRP: $32.99, 256pp. ISBN: 9781925816303.
People always seemed to exist in blissful ignorance of their unbelievable good fortune at being able to purchase an original work of art, that had taken anywhere from a year to ten years to write, guaranteed to provide many hours of entertainment and education and insight, for as little as ten or twenty dollars. What painting could you ever buy for that kind of money? (166)
Cait owns and runs a bookshop in Perth’s city centre, the delightfully named Book Fiend. Inside, there is a mix of new and second-hand books, a carefully designed bespoke fit-out and cosy places to sit. It even has a rolling ladder to get to the high shelves. In short, it is a booklover’s dream, just waiting for Cait’s cat Macduff to get old and slow enough to come sit by the counter in his own basket. Cait knows her regulars and runs a carefully curated book delivery service for readers who are unable to make the journey into town. But the profit margins are thin and as luxury brand stores crowd the in-demand city locale, the neighbouring small businesses are pushed out one by one. Soon, Book Fiend is the last independent, locally owned store in the area, and the last bookshop. And then, just as Cait’s falling in love with one-time customer James, the landlord increases the rent.
Shortlisted for the inaugural Fogarty Literary Award in 2019, The Last Bookshop is, at its heart, a love song for books, for reading, and for that alchemy of community you find around a local bookstore. The early chapters unfold slowly as the reader is introduced to Cait, to her attention to her customers’ interests and immense work ethic. Her love of the store is created on the page, but so too are the challenges of the life she has built around it. Soon Cait is plunged into a whirlwind romance with James just as the fragility of her financial situation becomes impossible to ignore. Is this life sustainable, that she has created? And by extension, how does anyone follow their dreams while preserving their security, and richness of experience, in other areas of their lives?
Young’s heart-warming novel is quietly optimistic about making a living in a tough industry. But, like a good bookshop, it’s also so much more: a study of the loves and losses that good literature explores, and that ultimately make us who we are. Young depicts a network of human connections in unfussy, almost conversational, prose. The romance with James in the foreground may dominate Cait’s heart, but for the reader it rarely outshines the other relationships, like that with surrogate grandmother June—an emotional touchstone in the story. While the leasing agent is almost caricatured, the finances that drive his decision-making are all too believable, particularly when you cast your mind back to boom time Perth. And Perth is a major character itself, from the Friday night city crowds to the suburbs and the hills, the city’s character is faithfully recreated. Young’s attention is drawn by the other stories in the small business landscape, which must be informed by her journalism, that will also feel very familiar to locals: the sushi shop that struggles, the chemist that is forced to close. The sense of risk they all face is real and accompanied by tangible loss of things and people we love. But where there is risk there is also reward, and the small team of unlikely social media warriors that band together to highlight Book Fiend’s plight is deeply charming. If anything, Cait’s a little slow to consider how her store’s relationship with the community could be its strongest asset.
But that’s where the reader comes in. Because Young isn’t writing a story about any shop, she’s writing about a book shop. She’s writing directly to us, the readers who have our own intimate relationships with places like bookshops and libraries. Literature and publishing need their champions, including business owners and, crucially, readers. Local book shops are one of the support structures in the ecosystem of publishing, and they in turn have the support of the communities they serve. This relationship is what you get when business owners know their customers and when readers shop local.
The Last Bookshop is for those of us who are filled up by the sense of possibility on the first page, who love a perfect recommendation and who almost always have a book on order. For the people who love books, Young wrote a love story.
Rachel Watts is a writer of literary and speculative fiction and short, creative non-fiction. Her writing has been published by Westerly, Island, Kill Your Darlings, The Big Issue and more. Her manuscript ‘In the Morning I Rise’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Penguin Literary Prize.