Bookseller spotlight: Meera Govil from Eltham Bookshop
What’s the first book that you remember having an impact on you?
I grew up in Northern India and spent many humid hot summers in my maternal grandfather’s house where I read and re-read several volumes of very finely printed The Ramayana translated by R K Narayan into English. It is a mythic book-epic in scale and regarded as scripture. Mostly it is sung but what I read was a beautifully rendered prose version which is impossible to find now in its entirety. I remember being completely fascinated with what lay within the folds of the books - the tales of heroes and heroines endowed with magical powers, scenes of blazing battles, verdant, lush forests, islands far away, cruel step mothers, a villain with ten heads, brave birds, monkeys. It was superb fantasy and yet connected to the lives around me. I learnt very quickly that when I grew up I would not be bound by what the book was trying to tell-that women have a prescribed role in society. I am sure Valmiki who wrote it in the 4th century BC would be very distraught if he knew one reader of his story was going to go her own way - still loving her family and caring for birds, bees, flowers and creatures.
Who were some of your favourite authors as a child?
We grew up without any bestseller lists and with mostly complete freedom to choose what we wanted to read from the school library. I know I wanted always to start from A and work my way through to Z authors on the library shelves It was an incredible mix of James Bigglesworth of the Biggles series fame; Enid Blyton and her entire repertoire-each birthday I was given one precious hardback of Secret Seven and the rest I scavanged from the school library; all the Archies, Superman and Phantom comics I could lay my hand on; Perry Mason with detective stories that featured secretaries in red stilettos and sharp nails, Charles Dickens and his tales of terrible poverty in Oliver Twist, Thomas Hardy and his exceedingly romantic novels; George Elliot; Emily Bronte, whose Wuthering Heights just engulfed me with dark, gothic feelings; Mahatma Gandhi with his The Story of My Experiments with Truth and Jawaharlal Nehru and his Letters to My Daughter. I have to tell you that I still have my very first book given to me as a prize when I was seven by my school which featured the flora and fauna of Australia. Any wonder that I am here?
How long have you been working at your bookstore? Can you tell us about the store and the community it serves?
This is going to be a very long story and certainly not Insta or blog size. I set up the bookshop 23 years ago and apart from four to six weeks of annual holidays I have worked at the bookshop every single day. The bookshop is hugely blessed by being surrounded by a very responsive, curious highly intelligent community that has spurred us on through many a roller coaster times, including present times. The bookshop prides itself on an eclectic array of superbly curated stock. We are fiercely independent in what we choose to stock and our bestsellers are often not reflected in the published bestseller. We take a lot of joy in finding just the right book for each customer.
What drew to you becoming a bookseller?
I always know I was going to be one. As a child I found a large bookshop next to my father’s business where I would escape and sit on the floor ‘reading’ all the large coffee table books and just inhaling in the smell of ink and covers and wooden shelves, travelling to lands and ideas I was yet to discover. It took me 44 years since that time to set up my own bookshop which stocks some coffee table book but many many books in more portable sizes on recycled wooden shelves. I now see some other children like myself sitting on the carpet doing exactly what I was doing 64 years ago.
What did an average day look like for you pre-COVID? And post-COVID?
There has never ever been an average day for Eltham Bookshop. Each day brings a whole new dimension to bookselling. There may have been a set routine of turning on the music, setting up the computers, checking the task lists and notes from yesterday but once the doors open anything can happen. The doors are now closed except for a hatch for collecting orders, a telephone that does not stop ringing so more lines have had to be put in. The bookshop resembles a warehouse and the heart breaks that no one can browse our creative displays and special messages scattered around the bookshop. Window dressing has taken on a whole new meaning-it literally is the portal to our bookshop now. We have a mean Show and Tell routine complete with a microphone from behind sneeze guards at the doors; We sprint between phone calls, door visits and emails.
We deep breathe to summon reserves of energy and creativity that we never knew existed, tip tap on social media, learn not to be shy on video presentations and enjoy secret joy at being able to create Vimeo ‘films’ with matching music. We are constantly trouble shooting special orders that never arrive because ships are docked in ports; watch all the silver linings like the hope that more books will be printed in Australia, that publishers will produce less and more excellent stuff, that editors will come into their own and most of all the fact that people have turned to books for comfort, understanding, escape and information.
What’s the best part about being a bookseller?
That each day at work is something to be looked forward to. That there is so much emotional, mental fulfillment in being surrounded by and transacting books. That we live a life of ideas and are the privileged custodians of so much thought and creativity as represented by the yards of books we stock and sell.
Any memorable customer interactions?
Lots of happy, sad smiles from behind masked faces; so many thanks. So many blessings. But that cliché “ I heard about this book late at night, can’t remember the author, can’t remember the title but it was about a river guide” constantly comes through the sneeze guard.
What advice would you give someone wanting to work in bookselling?
JUST DO IT. And, if you can, become a bookseller forever-not just to pass the time or because you like climbing tall ladders or you need pocket money. Immerse yourself in reading the books you sell. Respect the writers for their toil, faith and courage. Be super efficient, multi tasking and remember selling a book, the right book, means you can have the job for longer.
Who are some of your favourite Australian authors?
Now that is a wicked question. Richard Flanagan, Alex Miller, Drusilla Modjeska, Alexis Wright, Hannah Kent, Anna Funder, Maria Tumarkin, John Pilger, Richard Fidler, Kate Grenville, Luke Ngyuen, Paul Jennings, Sonya Hartnett, Zana Fraillon, Judith Rossell, Kirsty Murray, Shaun Tan… You are going to run me out of town if I keep answering this question as I am not going to able to list all the writers I love, respect and cherish.
Do you have any favourite UQP titles?
Too Much Lip by Melissa Lukashenko was a great favourite. I always await your list because you bring out writers that are ‘exotic’ to Victoria - always a different slant, a different texture to these books that come out of the tropics.
How can we follow your bookstore online?
We have a very active social media platforms - Instagram, Facebook with several ‘pages’ including one called the Co-Vid Busters and Chatterbooks - all updated with the help of midnight oil and a super duper website under construction and about to come live.