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A visit to the Lifeline Bookfest, Brisbane

Reporter, and fictional character, Norman Wallis writes this report on the recent Lifeline Bookfest in Brisbane, held from January 21 to Australia Day, January 26. Picture a hall the size of a football field, filled with tables of dirt cheap, ultra-rare, high quality books.

– Story by Norman Wallis
After returning home from Lifeline Bookfests, I always sit in the lounge room, take my newly discovered books out of my sports bag, and place them in piles on a small wooden table.

I’ll stare at the books for a while.

Then I’ll make a cup of tea, and come back and stare at the books a while longer.

I would never find books this interesting anywhere else – and certainly not for the price.

Some were absolutely fascinating, like Secrets of a Solicitor by Edward Maltby, published 1929 – a book about the author’s experiences as a London solicitor in the late 1800s to early 1900s.

He talks about encounters with Oxford-educated blackmailers, will forgers, and gold diggers at Mayfair parties – where the rich and titled would marry off their Society kids to those of the same class.

There are tales about mysterious disappearances; runaway brides; people who lose fortunes and leave the titled world of London to become hermits for the rest of their lives; the life and death of the King of Fences in London.

I couldn’t put it down, it was such a great insight into human nature.

You would probably have a hard time finding this book anywhere now.

But there were always thousands of great books like these at Bookfests, and they were always dirt cheap.

The Bookfests are held twice a year at the Brisbane Convention Centre, South Brisbane.

People donated these books to Lifeline, a charity, which held the Bookfests to fund services like phone counseling.

Many of these books have obviously been treasured for decades.

Sometimes, while I’m reading books I’ve picked up at Bookfests, I’ll come across strange bookmarks.

I found a tram ticket in one book – and trams haven’t run in Brisbane since the late 1960s.

On another occasion I found a Kodak postcard of an x-ray of a hand, from at least the 1950s or 60s.

At a Bookfest last year I purchased a copy of My Life and Work, by Henry Ford, printed in the 1920s.

There was a business card in the pages: the usual length of a modern business card, but maybe two-thirds the width.

It said F.S. Smith, The Law Book Co. of Australasia Ltd., Inns of Court, 21 Adelaide Street, Brisbane.

The phone numbers in Brisbane these days have eight numerals, but this phone number was B 8882.

On the back of the business card, in inkwell ink, he’d made a couple of calculations, with “one pound: per month”, “113 pounds, 50 pounds” and other figures.

That business card had probably been in that book since the 1920s.

A world war had come and gone, man had walked on the moon, and this card had been in those pages all that time.

And the names of previous owners of books interested me, too, making me wonder about their life stories.

I was intrigued even more when the names of previous owners had been crossed out.

Who were these mysterious people?

It was hard not to get sentimental about some of these old books, too.

There were inscriptions in the books: uncles and aunts wishing happy birthdays in the 1950s.

And there were awarded-to labels, for a school boy’s prize for Latin in the 1930s; or the Ex Libris labels people used to stick in their books, where the owners would write their names.

These books with their delicate relics were symbols of people’s lives; the sweep of humanity in the twentieth century had come and gone on some great tide, leaving this flotsam and jetsom behind.

I was always tempted to buy as many of these old books as I could as I wandered around Bookfests.

But I only picked books I intended to read, otherwise my bag would have become too heavy.

The circulation in my hand tended to get cut off after a while.

I attended the first day of the recent Lifeline Bookfest, which ran from Saturday, January 21 to Australia Day, January 26.

My plan was to get there as early as I could, and head straight for the unpriced section.

At the Bookfests the floor was always divided into three sections: quality books, priced books, and unpriced.

The unpriced section was cheaper and just as good, so I always headed there first.

If there was any room left in my sports bag, I would do a bit of a reconnaissance at the other sections before heading home.

I wanted to get there relatively early because the crowds moved in quickly.

And bookstore owners from places like Casino, in northern New South Wales, drove up to Brisbane for the sale and loaded up boxes of these bargains before heading home and probably selling them at a big mark-up.

Plus I feared the Ebay entrepreneurs, vacuuming up books to try to sell on the internet.

Then again, in previous Lifeline Bookfests I’ve arrived on the last hour of the last day and found great books.

I recall being in the quality books section one year, with 15 minutes to go before they shut the doors on the last day of a Bookfest, when I found a set of four hardback art training books by E.L. Koller, like Still-Life and Figure Drawing, published in 1926 by the International Textbook Company of Scranton, PA.

They were solidly bound books, green with a marone spine, printed on quality paper, and with excellent art work, like late 19th century ink line drawings.

They were going at half price at the end of a Bookfest, so I picked them up for four dollars each – one went for $3.50.

So I wondered what bargains I’d pick up at the latest Bookfest.

When I arrived on the first day of the latest Bookfest, on Saturday morning at around 9.30 am, there were already thousands of people there.

Admission was free.

Over the speaker system they were playing music from the early 1980s; the bands were REO Speedwagon, and Toto.

And there was an amusing man walking around with a microphone, wearing a Victorian-era English explorer’s outfit, complete with pith helmet.

He would announce that so-and-so was looking for her husband as she was about to leave; and that someone was looking for any books by Charles Bukowski, or Richard Brautigan, or Peter Pinney, if anyone spotted any.

The Convention Centre hall had a high ceiling and a concrete floor about the size of a football field.

The floor was divided into the usual three sections: quality, priced, and unpriced books.

And each section was full of long wooden tables lined with neat rows of second hand books.

I headed down to the end of the hall, to the unpriced section.
and when I entered it I felt a hint of adrenalin circulating through my system.

It was like a field of books.

There were signs at each of the tables: Penguins, Travel, Humour and Oddities, Childrens, Languages, Texts.

It was like some kind of book lover’s Heaven.

I wondered if the sight of so many books might prove discouraging to some writers.

You might not bother writing another book if you thought it would just disappear in a field of books like these.

Then again, it would give authors a better perspective on the whole game.

I started browsing along one of the tables.

The other book hunters and I shuffled along as we scanned the spines of thousands of books.

As I shuffled, out of the corner of my eye I was always watching for anyone shuffling toward me.

I wondered whether there was some sort of norm in place, dictating which direction around the table you were supposed to go.

Were people supposed to go clockwise or anti-clockwise?

Most people seemed to be going in the one direction, and I would follow them, but occasionally I would meet someone coming the other way.

I always had a feeling of uncertainty about whether I was going in the right direction, and wondered what I should do.
Should I impetuously bulldoze along the table, and make the oncoming person go around me?

Or should I freeze and stare at the books in front of me? until he got impatient and walked around me.

Maybe I should give way and go around him.

I always decided these dilemmas on a case by case basis, taking into account such factors as whether the oncoming person was an old woman or a big fellow.

If he was a big fellow I usually went around him.

But usually I chose the freeze, and just stared at a book until the oncoming person walked around me- no doubt harboring suspicions about my ostensible interest in The Wonder Book of Beer Coasters.

– Norman Wallis continues next page…