On James Street in the coastal town of Port Fairy, Victoria, about 300km south-west of Melbourne, lives a brilliant independent bookstore. Blarney Books and Art is abuzz with books for inspired readers and unique art for everyone; there are life drawing classes, French classes, regular book-related exhibitions and every year there’s an ‘edible books’ competition, as well as the well-known book-art competition called the BIBLIO-ART (it has nothing whatsoever to do with Bibles - biblio is latin for ‘book’).
Jo Canham is the owner of Blarney Books and Art, whose present location started off life as a Masonic Hall, then later became a youth centre (complete with bowling alley) for the community of Port Fairy.
What made you choose the Masonic Hall as the premises for Blarney? How long have you been there?
My husband and I originally looked at a small church out on the highway, but the real estate agent pointed us in the direction of the old Masonic Hall in town, and I remember quite clearly sitting on the side of the bowling alley and the dreams just started to get real. There was so much space to play with, it looked like anything was possible, and indeed it has been such a wonderful space to work with - we’ve had a fantastic time gradually building on that dream. That was 12 years ago.
What was your vision for Blarney when you started? What made you open a bookstore?
Two things: I had always - as long as I can remember - wanted nothing more than a little bookshop in the country. And I’d always said if I ever had kids, I’d raise them in the country. As we had just found ourselves pregnant, and looking for a way out of the city, it just became the right time to make that old dream come true. My vision of the shop was always simple, humble - just stocked with really good books (not so junked up like so many second-hand bookshops can become). It probably wasn’t the best idea to open a bookshop eight months pregnant, but I’ll remember that for next time.
Can you tell me about the exhibitions, especially about the Biblio-art Exhibition?
The art came later. I started out as being all about the books. But we had this foyer to the Masonic Hall that I didn’t really know what to do with. Then I had a brother who had a whole bunch of art that needed showing somewhere… and then we realised we could make that foyer (and the old kitchen, and the old toilets) into an art space. And so we did. And we haven’t looked back! The Biblio-Art exhibition came about from a surplus of vintage books that weren’t going anywhere. I didn’t know what to do with them, so came up with this idea for a competition that uses them, that’s inspired by them. I threw them in an orange wheelbarrow and sold them to artists to create masterpieces inspired by them - and - well - just wow. You would not believe the artworks that result. We’re into our eighth year of the Biblio-Art now, and we have entries not only from around Australia but from around the world.
I’ve seen you have a regular parade of doggies in the shop, whose your favourite dog customer and what do they like to read?
Oh, I really can’t choose favourite dogs. We are a dog-friendly space, so it’s lovely to hear the surprise when we tell people that they’re welcome to bring their pooches in! Chino is a pretty smart-looking book dog, though, isn’t she?
Have you always been involved with books? What did you do before Blarney Books?
Yes, I’ve always been involved with books, personally. In my working life, it’s been a ziggy-zaggy kind of road. I spent years transcribing court procedures, and police interviews, then I got myself into publishing after doing a desktop publishing course. I’ve worked on various magazines, and for educational book publishers. Then I put myself through university as a mature-age student and majored in criminology and literature… got myself a job in Corrections and then bid a hasty retreat… and set up Blarney Books & Art instead. I don’t think that was a bad decision.
What’s the first book you can remember reading?
I remember quiet time with my sister in our bedrooms, and having mountains of books beside us on our beds, and we’d read them and fling them across to each other. My father built in bookshelves above our beds (and being the worrywart I’ve always been, I spent years worrying about them falling on our heads) … but they were always full of books. One of the first books I remember cherishing was a book called The Hollywell Family, about a white family who adopt a black baby (illustrated by Shirley Hughes). I was adopted, so this was an important book for me. The first adult book I remember reading was Jane Eyre. I still have it, and I still reread it.
Have you had any famous visitors to Blarney? I know Helen Garner was a recent visitor.
Helen Garner was fabulous! She’s such a lively and interested personality. We’ve had quite a few famous authors through, thanks to the various book festivals over the years.
What’s your favourite genre and favourite book?
I like experimental fiction. I love authors who can play with words. My favourite Australian author is David Ireland. I love Margo Lanagan’s amazing books (her short stories are incredible). I love the short stories of Hilary Mantel. And of course, Helen Garner has been with me since I fell in love with Monkey Grip.
Any funny or interesting memories about books?
I wrote to David Ireland in the ‘80s. And he wrote back. And I wrote again. And he wrote back again! And when I saw him speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival one year (in conversation with Helen Daniel), he was everything I hoped he’d be - humble, smart and obviously nervous - he kept wiping his palms on his thighs. He’s the only author I’ve ever written fanmail to!
What are your hopes for the future of Blarney?
I would like to continue Blarney into my old age, I think. But I would like it to have more customers … because we’re not on the main streets of Port Fairy, people find it difficult to find us (or we’re not at the top of their minds) … so we lose a lot of potential buyers. We think about moving a lot, but love our building and what we have … if only we could pick it up and move it - maybe to within two hours of Melbourne (we’re about a four hour drive from Melbourne) that would be great.
I’d also like to build up the book-arts through our space. There are some wonderful artists out there making amazing artist books, and I think that’s where the future of the art side of things is for us.
We’ve added a stage now, so we’d love to host more author events, and music / drama - anything really, that would suit a bookshop!
[Thank you, Nadia for this interview! Great fun! x]
Nadia King and her writing can be found at her website here.