The Sunday Mail | Profile | Fiona Stager

Want to see the future of Brisbane’s literary scene? Look no further than the payroll at West End bookstore Avid Reader, writes Paul Donoughue. 

Fiona Stager pauses for a moment, trying to reel off the list of names, making sure not to forget anyone.

‘‘There’s Kris Olsson,’’ she says. ‘‘There is Krissy Kneen, Christopher Currie, Anna Krien and Benjamin Law.’’

She continues.

‘‘Ronnie Scott, he worked with us here. We also claim Cory Taylor as well. John Birmingham wrote his book upstairs – not the last one, but the one before.’’

And Trent Jamieson?

‘‘And Trent, oh my God.’’ It’s hard to keep track, it seems. ‘‘Lots of authors come and go.’’

So many, in fact, that to study the future of Brisbane’s literary scene is to gaze over the staff list at Avid Reader, the bookstore Stager co-owns in the central Brisbane suburb of West End. At least six present or former staff have had their first books published in the past two years. Brisbane author Benjamin Law has already sold the TV rights to his 2010 memoir, The Family Law. Melbourne-based writer Anna Krien’s book Into the Woods: The Battle for Tasmania’s Forests won categories at the Premier’s Literary Awards in Queensland and Victoria this week and was shortlisted in West Australia and NSW.

‘‘Part of the reason is they tend to employ each other,’’ Stager says. ‘‘They only want to work with good people and I think they really value the shop and so that’s how it came about.’’

Stager, 46, has always been a reader, never a writer. It’s much easier, she says.

‘‘My heart goes out to authors. I don’t know how they do it – but I’m grateful they do.’’

She started Avid Reader in 1997, having taken a zigzagged course towards bookselling.

‘‘I started an economics degree. I started an arts degree. I started a fine arts degree,’’ she says. Her bold laugh fills the small cafe at the back of the bookshop. ‘‘What made me a bad student was that I would do all the reading but I hated writing anything.’’

Stager grew up in the north Queensland town of Babinda, which regularly claims the title of the wettest town in Australia.

‘‘There were lots of rainy reading days. I read anything and everything that I could get my hands on.’’

For inspiration, she has long looked to Sylvia Beach, the bookseller and renegade publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses, who started the famous Shakespeare & Company bookstore on Paris’ left bank. Avid Reader, which prides itself on a personal touch in the difficult age of digital publishing, has been a seven-day-a-week job for Stager at times. She admits to many sleepless nights worrying about what her 19-year-old daughter calls the ‘‘favoured younger sibling’’.

‘‘I’m lucky that I love what I do, but it has come at a cost, to a certain extent,’’ she says. ‘‘Just because you are independent doesn’t mean you are going to be good. So you have to back it up with good customer service, you have to treat your staff well. You have to put into practise what you preach. All of those things are at the heart of what makes you a good local business, whether you are a bookshop or not.’’

Stager was one of several independent bookstore owners to lash out at Small Business Minister Nick Sherry’s comments in June that bricks-and-mortar bookstores would be dead in five years.

‘‘I was very surprised that he had such a poor reading of the retail industry,’’ Stager says.

She believes she can offer what the big chains and online retailers cannot.

‘‘We have a lot of events, I think that makes it important,’’ she says. “And also (the store) being a place to come and talk and meet and engage (with other readers).’’

When the January floods hit West End hard, Stager reopened as soon as the power returned, to offer locals a place to charge their phone or discuss their experiences.

‘‘One of the things they sell is their good will,’’ says Brisbane author John Birmingham, who wrote much of Without Warning there.

With a staff of well-read authors, a full event list and a few affiliated book clubs, Avid Reader has arguably become not just an anchor in the West End community but in Brisbane’s literary establishment. And it reflects what many in the industry have been saying for years: the old Sydney-Melbourne stranglehold over Australian literature has been undone.

Birmingham says: ‘‘People have returned – and that’s the case with me – but also they don’t feel the need to leave like they used to. There’s a critical mass, there are people doing interesting things – and Avid plays a role (in that).’’

Paul Landymore, a former Avid staff member who now works for the Queensland Writers Centre, was well aware of the explosion of talent at the shop during his three-year stint there.

‘‘It became known as the Avid Reader bump,’’ he says. ‘‘(The writers) would probably all tell you the same thing, that Fiona is very supportive of their extracurricular artistic endeavours.’’

He is frank about the reason Avid Reader is one of the country’s leading bookshops.

‘‘It all stems from Fiona. She’s passionate about literature, she’s passionate about writers. She’s also passionate about being engaged in the local community.’’

Published in The Sunday Mail, September 11, 2011.