Over the years, Les McDonald has become used to his landmark bookshop being used as the unofficial information centre for gay Sydney, but even he did a double take at one visitor.
“Michael Jackson sent over a courier one day for a copy of that year’s Mardi Gras tape,” McDonald says. “It was a surprise but I guess he couldn’t really come here himself …”
The King of Pop’s emissary was just one in a long line of celebrities who’ve become regular customers of The Bookshop Darlinghurst, which has showcased gay-themed literature over its 34 years in business in what was once the busiest block on pink Oxford Street.
Now up for sale, it’s hoped a new owner will continue the tradition for many years to come.
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“We’ve certainly seen the highs and lows of gay life in all that time,” says McDonald, 64, who’s planning to have a break after the sale, travel and then decide what to do next.
“I hope this place will continue to be an integral part of the gay community, and there are plenty of opportunities to develop it, like with the addition of a coffee shop inside, and make it even more successful.
“I know it might not be a terribly fashionable slogan right now, but it needs continuity and change.”
Magda Szubanski is part of The Bookshop’s clientele. Photo: Supplied
His landmark store is Australia’s longest-running bookshop for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, and has an international reputation which still sees it the first stop in the country for many overseas visitors.
Its clientele includes personalities like Molly Meldrum, American Tales of the City writer Armistead Maupin, Jacki Weaver, Magda Szubanski and actor Geraldine Turner.
Another favourite was McDonald’s late best mate, the acclaimed theatre director Richard Wherrett.
Les McDonald opened The Bookshop Darlinghurst in 1982. “We’ve certainly seen the highs and lows of gay life in all that time.” Photo: Supplied
Starting out in 1982 – two years before homosexual sex became legal in NSW – it quickly became an institution, providing information about events in Sydney and the gay community in Australia, as well as selling books, magazines and movies on DVD both in the shop and via mail order and the internet.
Along the way, it developed into an important part of Australian gay and lesbian history itself, supporting and promoting the Mardi Gras, helping fundraising efforts during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s, providing community information and rallying room, and becoming a community hub and discussion space for gay rights issues.
At one point, the Mardi Gras office was upstairs and the pioneering business also sold tickets for that, as well as associated events.
Les McDonald with Molly Meldrum. Photo: Supplied
“The bookshop’s often been a first stop in Sydney for gay tourists who pick up newspapers and magazines, ask for information about what’s happening and how to get to certain places, and hopefully buy a book or two at the same time,” McDonald says.
“We’ve always had lots of people from the arts coming here, and lots of famous authors, and we’ve launched many of their books. We’ve become a real destination over the years. People come to us.”
The bookshop has reported good growth in online and mail order sales, and is reaping the rewards of a return to popularity of print books and niche bookstores.
Gary Peroy, of Peroys Accountants and Advisers, who’s handling the sale, says he’s already received a lot of interest, especially since the site, at 207 Oxford Street, has potential to include other gay-themed businesses and become a complete complex.
“It could easily become even more of a venue and attraction, under the ownership of someone with energy and a real passion for the business,” he says.
“It’s a good business too, with 100 per cent year-on-year growth in the website alone, and a growing catalogue business.”
The sale is via expressions of interest, with a price range not yet released.
Yet while Oxford Street has been in a bit of a decline over recent years, McDonald is confident it’s now on the up.
“There are several buildings being renovated and they’ll be opening up in the next two to three months,” he says. “So that will bring new life.
“And we’re hoping, with the help of [Sydney lord mayor] Clover [Moore] to get rid of the clearways on the street for times when they’re not really needed. That will make a real difference too.”
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