That Great Indie Bookshop Does A Lot More Than Trolling MRAs

Avid Reader has fought against politicians, helped launch writers' careers, and more.

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By now, you’ve probably heard about the latest non-controversy concerning Australia’s saddest boys, Men’s Rights Activists.

This week they launched a failed attempt to downvote Brisbane bookshop Avid Reader, for sharing a post about Clementine Ford signing a contract for a new book. Thousands of people then jumped to defend the store’s reputation and the media got on board once the bookshop started spectacularly owning its trolls.

However benign the store’s actual actions, this is not the first time it’s courted controversy. So what, or who, is an Avid Reader anyway? We spoke to staff members and alliterative authors, events co-ordinator Krissy Kneen and social media laughy-man Christopher Currie, to see what makes the Brisbane staple so iconic.

A Bedrock Of The Queensland Literary Scene

Since opening in September, 1997 under Kevin Guy, Verdi Guy, Colleen Mullin and current owner Fiona Stager in Brisbane’s West End, Avid Reader has had a storied and, frankly, pretty kickarse history.

Avid has hosted authors ranging from all-stars (Stan Grant) to emerging (Ellen Van Neerven) to niche (the uh the team behind A Field Guide To Spiders Of Australia). They’ve also championed Queensland literature lovers through the dark days of former Premier Campbell Newman’s arts cuts in 2012. Despite the rise of e- and audio-books claiming giants like Borders, Avid thrived well enough to open a children’s store next door, Where The Wild Things Are, in 2015.

Most notably, the store has become a hub for Brisbane’s writing community. It hosts regular salon events, where local writers perform before headline acts. “[The series was designed to] support emerging writers and find a way where I could introduce them to established writers to promote mutual respect and sharing,” Kneen tells Junkee.

“As a nice, positive side-effect, it is good for the shop too. We have become a hub where writers and readers connect; Queensland writers can connect with writers from across the rest of Australia. That been one of the things that has put us on the map.”

“We brought the literary community together and I feel really proud of that.”

This community proved vital in keeping the ecosystem going after Newman cut the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards in April 2012. Kneen recalls teaming up with local author Matthew Condon the night of Newman’s announcement, organising a community the next morning, and — through volunteers and independent sponsorship — ultimately saving the awards in a demonstration of the scene’s “true colours”.

“Avid Reader became the hub of all that because I had stupidly raised my hand to do it,” Kneen says. “Fiona [Stager] did not once complain about the hundreds of boxes of books that arrived to be sorted and organised for the awards. A lot of my time in and out of work was dedicated to the organisation of that first year of running the awards and I was pretty burned out by the end of that year, but it brought the literary community together and I feel really proud of that.”

Kneen describes Avid regulars as a mixed, eclectic bunch, divided equally between the very young to students to working adults to the very old. “They teach me things every day and there is always an expert on whatever you are researching. Often it is the person who comes in wearing the scruffiest clothes or looking like a homeless person and they turn out to be the world expert on quantum physics or whatever.”

The store made news again in 2015 for not stocking Campbell Newman’s book in-store which, all things considered, was not really that big of a deal. It was misreported that the book was “banned” and the shop had to reaffirm that they choose not to stock certain books all the time. Stager did, however, use the opportunity to note the hurt Newman did to the industry.

“[He led an] attack on the writing, editing, book-publishing, book-selling community in Queensland,” she said. “It seemed ironic that the first thing he did after losing was to turn around [and] be involved in the publication of a book … Booksellers have a long memory.”

Kneen reflects on it all now: “Sorry Newman, our customers are not really interested in your book and if they are we will order it. The MRA stuff is equally ridiculous. Piling on us for saying we are looking forward to a book that isn’t even written yet? Pleeeease!”

“Every time we run an event with ‘feminism’ in the title we get trolled. Even the word ‘woman’ gets us hate tweets. Running events has opened my eyes to this kind of crap.”

Forget Cop Twitter, Bookshop Twitter Is Where It’s At

Speaking of their online presence, Avid has made quite the cheeky name for itself since bringing Chris Currie on as social media manager. He says that, through both the MRA shitfest and the Campbell Newman debacle, he “just stuck to Avid Reader’s principles and beliefs, and didn’t back down”.

“These one-star review attacks are supposedly designed to cripple a businesses carefully controlled social media presence and inspire insipid corporate backdowns, but we proved you can fight back and fight back effectively.”

Currie described to Junkee how Stager suggested he take on the role of social media manager to grow their online presence. He’s since worked live-tweeting the often sold-out salon events and further developed his voice.

“From the word go, she gave me carte blanche to say and do whatever I wanted as Avid Reader,” Currie says. “I took definite inspiration from Twitter accounts like @text_publishing, who very early on realised the effectiveness of ‘personalising’ a business Twitter account.”

“While I still write Avid’s tweets in first-person plural (‘we’ rather than ‘I’), there is still a definite Avid personality there,” he says. “We’re a little bit more respectful on Facebook (or at least we were until yesterday!) and Instagram, but not by much. I’m sure I’ve put noses of individuals and businesses out of joint with this approach, but overall I’d say it’s working.”

And even outside last night’s MRA nonsense, @avidreader4101 is one of the most reliably funny Twitter accounts. For a recent example, please enjoy Currie messing with comedy writer James Colley:

And as for real-world consequences to the trolls? Currie says the shop has seen some complaints, but MRAs are, for the most part not particularly renowned for their courage.

“We had people storm into the shop to give us their two cents during the Campbell Newman saga, and I’m sure we will with last night’s events,” Currie says. “But, legitimately, the type of people that come out of the woodwork are much braver and vocal behind a keyboard than they would ever be in the real world.”

A Pretty Impressive Roster Of Staff

Of course, it’s not just funny tweets that earned Avid Reader its legions of supporters. It’s also earned its great reputation through its in-store staff — both current and former.

Kneen describes the Avid staff as “hot… ridiculously talented” writers, and the store has been home to superstars like Benjamin Law, Michelle Law, Trent Jamieson and more.

Expat writer and former cafe worker Chloë Reeson attributes her “quiet confidence in writing” to her time at Avid, sparked by her first chance to speak at a salon event in 2012 for Josephine Rowe’s Tarcutta Wake.

“I love and admire Rowe’s writing and it was an invaluable experience,” Reeson says. “From the very, very start of my writing life I felt validated and legitimate, getting to stand beside emerging and established writers and share work.”

“I really think the talent in Brisbane is the best in Australia and it’s nurtured so well through the Avid community and particularly through that quiet courtyard out the back where people sit and really listen to your work; not to learn from it or criticise it or beat it but just to experience it.”

As to the future of the store, it faces the same issues as any retail space in 2017. Competition in the area meant they’ll be forced to close their cafe tomorrow, and Kneen says the “major challenge for a bookshop is always to make sure we have enough money to keep the doors open”.

If you’re in Brisbane some time, maybe drop in and say hi.

Chris Woods is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist.