Melbourne’s Polyester Books, on Brunswick St, is a phenomenon, not least for its hardy resilience in the face of narrow-minded attacks from authorities and certain sectors of the community alike. Now it faces a new threat – the extinction of the artistic culture it grew up in. Andrew Garton spoke with the store’s founder, Paul Elliot.
AG: I’m interested in how long you’ve been on Brunswick St and the things you’ve observed, the changes in the area.
PE: Well, I’ve been here about 13 years. Before the store was Polyester Books it was Disc Spinners records, and then Polyester Records. In those days this was a really daggy street – lots of second hand stores and manufacturing. There wasn’t the coffee culture and people really didn’t come down here much. It was hard for us, but then the street suddenly got a bit trendy after a couple of years.
AG: What do you think kicked it off?
PE: Because it was an interesting street, it was bohemian – interesting, arty sort of people. I think people like to be around that sort of scene
AG: Do you think the changes on Lygon St influenced that?
PE: Yeah. In the old days, in the seventies, I guess Lygon St was that kind of scene and then that went upmarket and got pretty boring. I guess this was next and then, as always happens, it attracts money and people want to be involved, which forces rents up. It means the people that were originally here, living above their premises and having unusual and interesting businesses – art galleries and stuff like that – can’t afford to be here any more and then they go. It becomes like Northland, you know, with 7–11 opening up the road, and things like that – stuff you’d find anywhere. Why come to Brunswick St to go to 7–11?
AG:Why do people come to Polyester?
PE: Because we’re unique. Because we are the bastion of outrageous literature. Yeah, and the way we present our shop, in our advertising – it’s just a gung ho way of doing it, the way we want to do it. We don’t give a stuff about who we offend, really. I guess as more mainstream businesses settle they tend to be really paranoid about offending anybody, so they wouldn’t dare do anything out of the ordinary. That is the nature of business in general – it tends to be conservative. We don’t adhere to any of those ideas. And people do say they are really pleased with what we present, and that they couldn’t find it anywhere in the world, certainly not in Melbourne.
AG: As Brunswick St is changing, is there still a level of healthy tolerance for what Polyester is doing?
PE: I think so. In general Australians are tolerant, it’s just that politicians aren’t. I mean we get a lot of customers, you look at them – a lot look really straight but they buy some fairly off beat material. It’s that veneer…
AG: How do you deal with challenges from the authorities?
PE: We are trying to be as pro-active as possible; we’ve just had a ‘Polyester Raid’ design-a-t-shirt competition. (We were raided by the police last year for selling melbified material: books about growing marijuana, ‘death scenes’ books and things like that.) The idea was that the winning design would be used on a t-shirt, to be sold as a fundraiser. Later on we are going to have a big benefit concert, hopefully at Festival Hall, with an audience of about 5000 people and some of the biggest bands in the country. Then we can truly fight legal battles, because we’ll have the funds to do it.
AG: Do you find as a result of Polyester’s presence that local publishers, people producing zines and so on, are encouraged to produce consistently because there is an outlet for them?
PE: Yeah. We are one of the few outlets for that material – we don’t censor anything, obviously. People can bring anything into the store and we’ll sell it on their behalf. I like to think that we nurture that kind of talent. It is easier for people, for instance, to produce a fanzine than it is to put out a CD or something. Within an afternoon they can have a finished product and they can bring it in and we’ll sell it for them at very low cost to them. The way its going, it’s so sad, but I was here before and it goes up and then it goes down.
I had this idea that if every business was in the Traders’ Association. Say we have 200 members; we haven’t at the moment, but if everyone that was in the association paid $10 a week, that would be $2000 a week. With that money you could reserve the best building – $2000 is pretty good rent. So if a good building came along you could grab it – you need something fairly big, two storey – and then we could work out what would attract people, rather than it being just another store. We could make it really experimental and totally, truly unique. A bit of a social experiment in some ways. That is a dream of mine. Because everyone is complaining that business isn’t as good as it used to be, and what do you think is the reason – there is nothing unique here.
Okay, so lets find a building – wait till one becomes available – and grab it and then just pay $10 a week and we have it indefinitely and then we ask for submissions for ideas and we can do what we like with it. It would be this cooperative that everyone could be a part of. I’ve never heard of it being done before.
Published by Sleepy Brain