Better Read Than Dead

In this special series, Sydney Writers’ Festival speaks with bookshops across Australia about the special place they hold in our bookworm hearts. From recommendations on your next great read to their favourite memories in a bookshop, hear from the people many of us trust the most. 

This edition, we speak to Madeleine Gray, Bookseller at Better Read Than Dead (pictured below). 

What do you love about your bookshop?

Our bookstore is in Newtown, so what I love most is the gorgeous community we are part of, and the fact that if I order in obscure queer academic tomes for the Book Nook, people will buy them and love them.

What purpose do you feel a bookshop serves in the community?  

This is cheesy, but I think a bookshop is the “feelings centre” of any community – people come in and they just want to connect to a story that complements their mood at the time of buying. I can’t count the amount of instances where someone has said, “I’d like a book that is only happy” or “I’d like a book to emotionally destroy me”.

What is your favourite moment in a bookshop?

My favourite thing to do is recommend books to people that might be outside their usual reading remit, and then have them come back later and be like “I didn’t expect to, but I loved that”. More specifically, I love selling boomer males contemporary feminist fiction.

What do you get asked most by customers? 

I get a lot of people wanting book recommendations for their queer relatives, often young queer relatives, which is the sweetest thing. We always gasp with delight when someone asks for help with that.

I get a lot of people wanting book recommendations for their queer relatives, often young queer relatives, which is the sweetest thing.

What book has made the greatest impact on you? 

Probably How to be Both by Ali Smith. I’d never read a book that made me enjoy language that much, made the same word funny and sad and exciting all at the same time. Upon reading it, I switched my undergrad major to English and now some years later I’m still at it, doing a PhD in English lit. So that book literally changed my life.

What is the best book you’ve read recently?  

This isn’t a new book, but I recently read Louise Glück’s Proofs and Theories, which was published in 1994. It’s Glück writing about why she writes, her thoughts on poetry and criticism – and it feels like it could have been written tomorrow. She is wonderful.

What is the most surprising thing about your job?

It’s interesting, because it is two dual roles. On one level, you’re a retail assistant – people want their orders and they want them now, etc. But on another level, you are expected to have the most in-depth knowledge of the literary corpus, and be a kind of reading sage to every type of person. It’s amusing to switch between the two roles.

What is your most requested out-of-print book?

Strangely, I’ve had a lot of requests for Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain of late, and even though it’s a classic, for some reason it is near impossible to get.

What children’s book do you think adults should read? 

Day Break by Amy McQuire, illustrated by Matt Chun. It is a gorgeous picture book about Invasion Day, and about the resilience and joy of First Nations families and peoples in spite of well, everything.

Advice on getting through lockdown or realisations borne through lockdown?

I couldn’t really read ‘serious’ books during lockdown, my mind was pretty much mush, and I had to safeguard the non-mush I did have for PhD work. So I just read a lot of beach reads, and a lot of queer YA – I loved those books and I regret nothing. Just do what you can to get through, would be my advice.