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Running an Egyptology Bookshop

In 1987 I went to Egypt, before I went I met the great T.G.H James, who said to me, Egypt has a way of changing your life, you will either go on as before or change utterly in the next five years, I got the second one!

It seems to me only yesterday that I started my bookshop but it was actually in 1989! Back then bookselling was different, the whole world was different. I had just signed a lease on a property in Oakleigh and was moving in there in a month with another business I owned at that time, a classic car parts manufacturing company but I needed something to fill the gap with the rent. By chance, I was in the Oakleigh Book Exchange and the woman behind the counter was saying to a customer, “I’ve been doing this for 25 years, it’s put both my kids through school but I’d sell up tomorrow, my backs gone”, so I went over and bought it with the money I had in my back pocket.

That was how you got into the book trade in the 80’s, I had purchased for $1500, 74,000 books, and we had to get them out of the shop in a week. She threw in the bookshelves and counter too. I was in business! Set up in my new shop with some of the books on the shelves my first customer arrived, I followed them around the shop thinking I would sell them a book, “that’s a good one”, I’d say if they picked up anything, I just freaked them out! I learnt quickly you must leave them alone and play nice music to get the sales. A book exchange for those who don’t know is where you buy a book for a certain price, read it and bring it back and you get a little bit off your next purchase. I wish they were still around it was a great way of building a library on the cheap.

After four years I sold the Classic car parts business and took up bookselling permanently. The book exchange was sold too (for exactly what I paid for it), and I concentrated on new and second-hand books on history, specifically Egypt. It was during this time that I became the Egypt Exploration Societies representative in Australia.

I had great fun working from home in Chadstone, with a small library set up and office. Mobile phones had just come in and I purchased one so I could work essentially anywhere. I travelled to many universities around Australia and especially Sydney where I was worked with Joan Beck and the wonderful people of the Rundle Foundation for Egyptian Archaeology. We had some great conferences and Prof Kanawati welcomed me every time, with his hands that looked like shovels, a real dirt archaeologist. It was during this period that I developed my tee shirt range and sold mostly new books at the conferences.

I also was travelling from Perth, Brisbane, Sydney, following around the visiting scholars every Aug-Sept, having a stall at each conference. In two weeks I could be in Sydney twice, Brisbane then the following week Perth. Sometimes by plane but usually in my 1949 or 1954 Rover’s, all the while carting around boxes of heavy books. In Sydney I stayed on my 31 foot Adams yacht, Vinaka at Snapperman Beach, Pittwater.

I met the most marvellous Egyptologists, Lanny Bell, Rita Freed, Kenneth Kitchen, Harry Smith, Olaf Kaper, Donald Redford to name (drop) but a few. Also in 1993 I met our own Classicist and author, Colleen McCullough. They were all wonderful and some became good friends, as I was the Aussie face they saw at every stop I became the go-too girl for problems and help and a dinner companion.

I heard every lecture they did, it was like an advanced learning course. I also met many experts in other disciplines from Celtic, Roman, Greek and language experts in Latin, Ancient Greek, Arcadian and Egyptian Hieroglyphics.

This was a marvellous foundation of knowledge for my business something I have fallen back on again and again, and I took copious notes. In 1995 I attended the Association of Egyptologists Conference at Cambridge University, UK and some of those very Egyptologists I met in Australia, shouted me a beer. All except Kenneth Kitchen as he “doesn’t touch a drop”, as he would say, so I just had a Coke with him. After 1998 I scaled down that part of my business as the constant travelling could be quiet draining.

In the 2000’s family life took over as a Mum and also some health issues slowed me down which after a serious fall in 2003 ended in a spinal operation. My business now is all internet based with by appointment visits to my purpose built shop in Chadstone. I enjoy very much still meeting my Egyptologist friends; but a lot of that is now on Facebook and I run a business Facebook page. Also eBay has taken over as an important vehicle and I always have a booth at the ANZAAB book fair every July in Melbourne. ANZAAB has been a wonderful organization to belong too; but of course now my interest in Rare books on Egyptology has grown.

So yes, business has changed greatly since 1989, it used to take 3-4 months to get a book from writing letters to waiting for the Sea Parcel Post to arrive, as nobody could afford Air Mail; But I think travelling around and talking to 100’s of people gave me a good grounding in understanding the wants and needs of my customers. These days’ people buy Egyptology books on the large online shopping sites and just have a short title and a photo to pick from, I wonder if they are actually getting what they want. Yes, they are buying books which is good but with each book bought on the big sites another small bookseller is losing a sale. On these sites you can’t buy experience or knowledge to know if a book is well written, well bound, too expensive, not of academic worth.

Here at Ankh Antiquarian Books, almost thirty years of experience in Egyptology and bookselling meet. I am now the Egypt Exploration Societies authorized bookseller. If you are doing a school project to a PhD or you are just an interested amateur, I can help. Yes the world of knowledge has changed and grown and Ankh Antiquarian Books has grown with it, a modern bookshop with ancient knowledge.

Ankh Antiquarian Books established in 1989, specialises in rare Antiquarian books and new books on the subject of Ancient Egypt and History. Our range of magazines include KMT A modern journal of Ancient Egypt (USA), Egyptian Archaeology Bulletin (the EES UK magazine) and The Nile, an Australian based magazine printed in the UK.

Come and visit us!

Jen’s Egyptology and Rare Book Talk


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