‘We had no idea what we were doing. We had no books, no bookshelves. No cash reserves to speak of. And none of us really wanted to work.’
That was Heather O’Connor, remembering a planning meeting in May 2010. Someone had ‘some damn-fool idea’ of a second-hand bookshop in Cobargo, and five women – Heather, Virginia White, Louise Brown, Annie Lee and Chris Haynes – had gathered to discuss it over lunch.
‘Seriously, we weren’t even through the hors d’oeuvres and there seemed to be no hope… Four months later we opened.’
Well Thumbed Books in September 2010 was one room of books in the old Cobargo Bakery. The stock was pilfered from the collections of the women and their friends, and from whatever market stalls and deceased estates they could find. But they needn’t have worried. ‘You open the door to a second-hand book store,’ Louise says, ‘and the books just pour in.’
As for shelves, they managed with planks on bricks at first, but soon had furniture stripper Col Rayner knocking them together.
Ten years later, Well Thumbed Books is four rooms of packed shelves. Pre-Covid, a small, amicable gathering would be settled with coffee mugs on plastic chairs on the footpath out front. A serious reader or two would be picking through the ‘recommended’ shelves just inside the front door. Further in, specialist collectors would be blowing the dust off obscure titles and building small wish-list stacks.
These days the five women are founders Heather, Louise and Virginia – with Linda Sang, who joined after a year, and Nicky Hutteman more recently, to replace Chris and Annie who both moved interstate.
Selling books is almost a secondary pursuit at Well Thumbed. Virginia remembers Dave and Barb Rugendyke doing Friday morning storytime sessions for pre-schoolers in the early days. More recently a young guitarist has been using the meeting room to write songs and practise.
Often on Saturday mornings a crowd would descend upon the pews and seats in the meeting room to launch a book for a local author, and their warmth, encouragement and enthusiasm would be palpable. Only a cynic might venture that some were there more for the gourmet morning tea afterwards.
‘Oh, and the “Taste of the Triangle” dinner in the Hall!’ says Virginia. Food has always been central. ‘We all cooked, under the direction of our very own chef, Linda. And all the food was sourced from within thirty kilometres of Cobargo.’ That was in 2013, and it raised nearly $5000 for the School of Arts Hall.
There’s also the Community Car, available short-term to any Triangle-area licensed driver over 25, for $10 a day. It’s ‘garaged’ at the bookshop and fully maintained, pro bono, by mechanic Chris Norris two doors down.
Linda remembers the Olga Masters Festival in 2014. The idea started life as a day of readings, a corned beef and pickle sandwich competition (food had to be in there, somewhere) and a guided walk around Olga’s haunts in Cobargo, but soon Four Winds had added a second day, with jazz music and a radio play at the Windsong Pavilion, attended by the huge Masters clan – all five of Olga’s surviving, hugely talented children, and their families – with a national short story competition thrown in.
Undaunted, the Well Thumbed women hosted a ‘Sisters in Crime’ literary festival two years later – a host of acclaimed Australian female crime-writers did readings, talks and panel sessions – and kept visitors spellbound during meal-breaks too.
‘Generally, someone has an idea, then the five of us just share our different interests and abilities,’ says Linda. ‘It’s all about books, community and food.’
Nicky agrees. ‘And between us, we manage to cover all reading genres! For instance, Heather’s our political reader and would be quite happy to cordon off the back room – sci-fi, fantasy and “beach fiction”. But I know there’s a place for this lighter stuff, especially since the fires.’
Since those NYE bushfires, I for one have been amazed at how many friends and contacts from afar have inquired – timorously – about the fate of Well Thumbed Books. And an anonymous handwritten notice appeared in the bookshop window the next day – ‘Post-Apocalyptic Fiction moved to Current Affairs’ – and soon gained fame in an article in the New York Times.
This month the team celebrates Well Thumbed’s tenth birthday. Virginia speaks for them all – ‘I’ve met a lot of people and made a lot of friends. And I’ve saved a fortune on books!’
‘Yes, really all we wanted was a steady supply of books,’ says Heather. ‘I mean, for ourselves! And to have fun. Fun was stipulated, right from the start.’
This story first appeared in The Triangle Community Newspaper in September 2020.