#TasmanianLitMonth: A Writing Culture

Written by Rayne Allinson, Assistant Publisher at Forty South

Rayne Allinson has a PhD in History from Oxford University. She is Assistant Publisher at Forty South and runs the Reading Groups at Fullers Bookshop in Hobart.

Tasmanian Bookshops and Publishing 

One of the first things that struck me when I arrived back in Tassie three years ago after nearly two decades abroad was how many independent bookstores we have here. And not just in major urban centres like Hobart and Launceston, where foot traffic makes trade easier. Take a drive through Cygnet, Oatlands, Campbell Town, or Burnie, and you will stumble on book havens with a character, specialisation, and magic all of their own.  

Books were traded in Van Diemen’s Land from the time of settlement, but the first official bookseller appears to have been John Philip Deane (1796-1849), a violinist and composer who migrated from Surrey, England with his wife Rosalie and their young family, and established Deane’s Circulating Library in Hobart Town in 1822. Interestingly, after Deane was appointed first organist of St David’s Church in 1825, Rosalie took over the day to day running of the shop, and thus a woman became Hobart’s leading general bookseller in the late 1820s and 1830s. 

Samuel Augustus Tegg (1813-1872) bravely followed Deane’s lead by opening a bookshop in Brisbane St, Launceston in 1844, advertising “a splendid assortment of books, stationery and fancy goods arriving by every vessel.” In addition to purchasing stock from London, Tegg also published a range of local authors (as well as pirated copies of English classics like Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers), and thus early booksellers were also the island’s first printers and publishers.  

Tegg’s Launceston bookshop, along with the Circulating Library and Stationery Shop in Hobart, were eventually bought by Major James Walch, who had migrated to Van Diemen’s Land in 1842. Walch & Sons built a new shop in Macquarie St and bought another in Davey St, selling books, stationery, musical instruments, sporting goods and paper, all imported directly from their London office. Walch’s obituary described his bookshop as “the best known spot in Hobart”, and that “the history of the house may be said to be incidentally the history of the city for over half a century”.  

Outside of the main cities, early Tasmanian bookshops could also serve as general grocery stores. James Dudfield (1817-1905), formerly known as Convict no. 22238, was a Somerset man transported to the colony for 15 years for larceny in a dwelling house. After receiving his conditional pardon in 1847, he and his wife Anne moved to Emu Bay (later Burnie), and opened a bookshop in Arcade House, Wilson Street, in the late 1870s. Dudfield’s shop initially stocked books, stationery and gifts, but he later added grocery and hardware to his merchandise. Thus the first bookshops were general stores in every sense, a hub for local communities to gather in and exchange news. 

A new chapter in Tasmania’s literary history opened when Andrew W. Birchall (1831-1893) took over Walch’s Launceston bookshop on Brisbane St in 1858. Birchalls Ltd, as his business became known, is widely recognised as the oldest continuously operating bookshop in Australia until its close in 2017. One of the secrets to Birchalls’ success was being at the forefront of innovation: in 1902, John Birchall decided that the cumbersome method of selling writing paper in folded stacks of “quires” (four sheets of paper or parchment folded to form eight leaves) was inefficient, so he tried gluing together a stack of halved sheets of paper supported by a sheet of cardboard, which he called the “Silver City Writing Tablet”, now known as the world’s first notepad. 

This legacy of innovation, publishing and strong community engagement continues in Tasmania today, especially in Hobart, where you can browse at least half a dozen bookshops within a few kilometers’ radius. In Collins St you’ll find Tasmania’s largest secondhand bookshop, Cracked and Spineless, which is the best place to go rummaging for weird and wonderful books. In the historic Salamanca Arts Centre you can browse Déjà vu Books, a bookshop from the good old days where the shelves reach high to the ceiling and treasures cascade to the floor (and out the door). Around the corner is the more ordered but equally delightful Hobart Bookshop, which sells both new and secondhand titles. And in vibrant North Hobart, you can browse the boutique State Bookstore adjoining the State Cinema, which sells fine books, paper, stationary and pens. 

Yet perhaps one the most well-known local landmarks in Hobart is Fullers Bookshop (or so it is to me, since I am lucky enough to work there). Established soon after the First World War in 1920 by W. E. (Bill) Fuller, and now located in Collins St, it not only sells bestselling books, but hosts a range of cultural and literary events throughout the year. Moreover, continues the Tasmanian tradition of bookshop-publishers, and has produced quality books by many local authors since the 1930s. In 1996, Clive Tilsley (OAM) opened the Afterword Café, and ever since people have been gathering at Fullers not only to browse the bookshelves and other merchandise, but to meet over a warm cuppa and delicious lunch.  

This community engagement was further enhanced by the establishment of Fullers Reading Group by Irene McGuire in 1997. The first book they discussed was Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander, and ever since then they have met monthly every year (with the exception of pandemic-struck 2020) to enjoy each other’s company and discuss the merits of great novels, old and new. Today there are over one hundred eager members of this illustrious reading group, which shows no signs of slowing down.  

With its roots in bookshops, book publishing has also taken on a new history of its own in Tasmania. For over 25 years, Forty South Publishing has been the leading Tasmanian publisher, producing a wide range of premium books on Tasmanian themes, as well as a luscious quarterly magazine showcasing good writing and beautiful photographs about Tasmanian places and people, environment and wilderness, tourism and travel, food and wine, the arts, history, science, politics and business. The Tasmanian Indie Author Group also holds a book fair at the Brooke St Pier every May, showcasing the work of many local authors around the state. 

For an island state of only half a million people to boast so many unique and wonderful bookshops is an extraordinary achievement, and says something important about what it means to be Tasmanian. We are truly an island of readers.  

I would like to pay my respects to the traditional custodians of the land, the Palawa people of Tasmania, and to their Elders, past, present, and emerging. I acknowledge their deep spiritual connection to the land and their ongoing contributions to the culture of this nation.  

About Guest Curator, Bec Taylor

I’m Bec Taylor, the EY3 – Grade 2 cybrarian* at the International School of Beijing, China. I’m a global nomad with Australian roots and a Chinese family home – all my immediate family have lived and worked in Beijing as international school teachers for many, many years.  

Overly enthusiastic about everything especially children’s literature, Australian Rules Football (go Doggies!) and food, glorious food, I am easily bribed with coffee and dark chocolate. I am a passionate advocate of social justice, female financial literacy, and finding ways to tread more lightly on the planet. Alongside the demands of a busy family and professional life, I enjoy cultivating community through volunteer work that focuses on healthy families.

I am the current Chair of the Chinese international schools reading promotion, the Panda Book Awards. Titles chosen for the shortlists of the Panda Book Awards meet selection criteria that focus on social justice, diversity and inclusion by up and coming authors and illustrators from across the world. There is an added spotlight on titles that feature Asian settings, characters or creators. 

Twitter is my favourite professional development space so please come find me there: @becinthelibrary

The educational hills I will die on are:

  • a child’s right to choose what they love to read,
  • there is serious magic in reading aloud,
  • and the belief that schools are happier, more equitable places with better academic outcomes when the properly funded school library is well staffed with qualified, collaborative and passionate professionals.

*a fancy name that formalises and acknowledges the incredible work teacher librarians do each day to find authentic ways to integrate and explore educational technology in order to capture, expand, and enhance student learning.

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