Episode 14: Fiona Stager

Fiona Stager is a bookseller and co-owner of two independent bookshops.

Penmanship podcast episode 14: Fiona Stager, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2015Positioned side-by-side on Boundary Street, in Brisbane’s inner-city suburb of West End, her shops Avid Reader and Where The Wild Things Are cater to a wide range of readers. The latter store was launched in March 2015 and specialises in titles for children and young adults. Its neighbour, Avid Reader, opened in 1997, and has since established itself at the centre of the city’s literary culture by hosting regular book club meetings and author events.

Avid is where I launched my first book, Talking Smack, in August 2014, in conversation with Brisbane author – and previous Penmanship guest – John Birmingham, who also used the cosy room above the store as a place to write his novel Without Warning (2008). It’s my favourite bookshop in Brisbane, not only because it’s my local, but because walking through its front door always feels like returning home. This is a wonderful feeling for a bookshop to give to its customers, and I suspect that I’m not the only one who has this experience at Avid Reader, since it is now approaching two decades in business.

My conversation with Fiona took place in early November, in the writers’ room above Avid, where handwritten plot outlines and chapter structures are posted on the walls. Our conversation touches on her unusual path into bookselling; her philosophy and vision for what she wanted Avid Reader to represent; the advantages of hiring writers as her staff; how she manages a formidable reading schedule, and her recent involvement in a national news story which highlighted the store’s decision not to stock the biography of the former Premier of Queensland.

Fiona Stager is the co-owner of Avid Reader Bookshop and Where the Wild Things Are Bookshop. Avid Reader has gained a national reputation for its extensive events program which regularly features international, national and local authors. The Queensland Writers Centre named her the winner of the 2009 Johnno Award for her contribution to the Queensland writing community. She is a regular judge of literary awards including the inaugural Stella Award and the Queensland Literary Awards 2015. After sitting on the board of the Australian Booksellers Association for twelve years, Fiona was awarded life membership in 2014 for her services to the Australian bookselling industry. National Bookshop Day was one of her initiatives. Fiona lives in West End with her family, three chickens and her native bee hive.

Avid Reader on Twitter: @AvidReader4101

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3.00 Fiona describes Avid Reader’s upstairs writing room, which has been used by local authors such as John Birmingham, Melissa Lucashenko, Krissy Kneen and Christopher Currie

4.00 The space – which Fiona describes as “the writers’ factory” – has been offered to writers since Avid Reader moved to its current location at 193 Boundary Street, West End

6.00 The tables out on the footpath is one of Fiona’s favourite parts of the shop, because “I like colonising footpaths, and making them accessible to people; I like breaking down those barriers”

7.00 “The purpose of the table is to make people stop outside the shop. It’s a non-confrontational area, especially for people for whom there’s often a barrier around coming into an independent bookshop”

8.00 “I’ve always been very keen to break down those stereotypes around bookshops, that they’re not sacred, quiet places; they can be interactive, rowdy and messy”

9.30 Fiona grew up in a small town named Babinda, south of Cairns, in north Queensland. Her parents are canefarmers, and they were both big readers

10.30 “A lot of people have stereotypes around what farmers are like; a lot of farmers are autodidacts, and often curious. I find them an interesting bunch of people”

11.30 “Something I’m very mindful of on the shop floor is not to stereotype people, because people are always much more interesting than what you presume them to be”

12.30 Fiona started an economics degree, and squandered her access to free education by “dropping in and out of various degrees over the years”; she knew she didn’t want to be a teacher or a nurse

13.00 Fiona is the oldest Stager sibling, followed by a younger sister and brother, then a younger brother who’s 12 years younger than her

14.00 Fiona attended James Cook University in Townsville for three years, but did not complete her economics degree

15.00 Fiona arrived in the inner-city suburb of West End, Brisbane, in 1988, working as a waitress and a “pizza princess” in an Italian restaurant

16.00 “Everybody should, at some stage in their lives, be a waitress. You learn a lot about humanity, and you see people at their best and worst”

18.00 In 1989, Fiona worked in, then co-owned a second-hand bookshop in West End named Emma’s for nine years, which is how she got into the books industry

19.00 “When opportunities come your way, sometimes it’s good just to jump. I learned a lot; I read a huge amount”

20.00 Fiona saw buying into a bookshop as giving her more of a career path than working as a “pizza princess”

21.00 After nine years at Emma’s, Fiona opened up Avid Reader, which was a very different business as Avid was selling new books rather than second-hand

22.00 “I knew that there was a demand. I knew that a lot of my second-hand customers were also buying new books, and I was also interested in author events”

22.30 Fiona was “very much inspired” by Gleebooks in Sydney; its owner, David Gaunt, became a mentor of hers

23.00 Fiona started Avid Reader in 1997 alongside two other people: her partner, Kevin Guy, and Colleen Mullin

25.00 Fiona envisioned the store as a place “where ideas were respected, all customers were respected, and which reflected the many and diverse interests of West End”

28.00 Fiona saw hosting author events as crucial to Avid Reader’s success, because “people don’t remember an ad in the paper, but they remember a party”

32.00 There were anxieties and stresses about money “for many years”; they survived by “living frugally”, and it helped that Kevin worked outside the store

33.00 The first shop was about a quarter of the size of the current shop, at 193 Boundary Street, West End; the events were standing room only

35.00 They outgrew the first shop because Fiona realised they needed “a bigger footprint” in the area, to stop the potential for competition

36.30 Fiona has “a lot of empathy” for chain booksellers, as “they’ve got their small business mortgaged against their homes, and they’re working the hours that we are”, just like Kevin and her

37.30 Avid Reader has hired numerous local writers over the years, including authors such as Krissy Kneen, Benjamin Law, Christopher Currie and Trent Jamieson

40.00 “My philosophy has always been that everybody is treated equally, whether you’re the Lord Mayor, the Premier of the state, or the homeless person who comes in and buys a book once a fortnight”

41.00 What hiring writers has brought to Avid Reader, and what the writers themselves learn from working in a bookshop

42.00 There are 7,000 books published into the Australian market each month

42.30 What Fiona has noticed about how writers manage their time and the difficulties associated with sitting down at the desk and doing the work

43.30 Fiona hasn’t done much writing herself; “I always say I’m a reader, not a writer, and the world needs more readers”

44.30 Fiona did all the book-buying for the first seven or so years, but now she has someone else who buys books into the shop for her

45.30 The hardest transition for Fiona when going from second-hand to new was the comparatively quick turnover, and how books that don’t sell have to be returned after three months

47.00 Trent Jamieson has been the returns officer for a few years, and has been known to have to return his own books to his publisher if they don’t sell

48.00 How Fiona keeps her love for books alive, and avoids becoming jaded by the tougher aspects of the business

49.00 Fiona runs several book clubs at the store, including the Wednesday Night Book Club, the Daylight Book Club, the Australian Book Club, and the crime book club, ‘It’s A Bloody Game’

50.00 This year she started the Big Breakfast Book Club, held on Sunday mornings, which recently featured previous Penmanship guest Susan Johnson and her book The Landing

51.00 How Fiona manages her reading diet, and allocates time to reading for each of these clubs; she recently had a “readcation” where she went and read for ten days

52.00 How the idea for the children’s and young adults bookshop next door, Where The Wild Things Are, was conceived and launched in March 2015

54.30 Fiona was still unsure of whether she wanted to go into a new business, knowing that her workload would “skyrocket again”. But then Kev, her partner, came up with the name, and “As soon as he said the name, I went, ‘Oh, we’ve just got to do it'”

55.30 “I’m pretty happy with it; we’ve just got to get ourselves through for this Christmas, which is the peak time; we’ll do a huge amount of trade in the last two months of the year”

56.00 How Avid Reader became supporters of the Queensland Literary Awards after Campbell Newman defunded the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards in 2012, by offering meeting and storage spaces

57.00 “It had to be done, and we seemed to be the best place to do that from”

58.00 Fiona was in the news in October 2015 when former Premier Campbell Newman was releasing his biography, Can Do, and Avid Reader’s staff decided not to stock it

59.00 “It became a symbolic gesture, and that’s how I could rationalise it. That was my line to the media: we were reminding people of what Campbell Newman had done – not just to the literary awards, but to a lot of our customers”

60.00 This “symbolic gesture” became a national news story when Fiona was asked about Newman’s book on her fortnightly appearance on ABC Country Radio, and then the following morning in an interview with ABC 612 breakfast radio host Tim Cox

61.00 “I was a little bit fearful of how our viewpoint could easily be misinterpreted – as it was”

62.00 “Having Christopher [Currie] do the social media was fantastic, because I trusted him implicitly; we stuck to the one message, we responded always with politeness, and that’s just who Chris is”

63.00 “It was never banned; we don’t ban books. We say no to over 6,000 books each month”

64.00 Other books that Avid Reader doesn’t stock include Mutant Message Down Under by Marlo Morgan, and The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

65.00 After all of the national media attention, not one customer placed an order for Campbell Newman’s book

66.00 What Fiona sees for the future of both bookshops: “Kev and I have always got little brewing in the back of our brains”

68.00 How Avid Reader’s sales patterns have changed in the last few years

69.00 “I know some people would be embarrassed to find out how much we take, and what we live on from the shop”

69.30 Fiona’s position on cheaper online booksellers such as Amazon and The Book Depository

70.00 “In terms of those big guys, they just need to collect GST. It’s bad enough that they don’t pay Australian wages or income tax, but they do need to collect GST and pass it onto the government”

71.00 How Fiona explains her position to a reader who just wants a book for the cheapest price possible

72.30 “I need to confess, I’m somebody who turns the pages down, I’ll leave a book spine up – I know, I know, I’m terrible”

73.00 What Fiona has learned about people who write for a living: “I’m endlessly grateful to them. I can’t imagine how they do it”

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