Anne here. Last weekend I was able to get away out into the country for the first time in over a year. The occasion was a book event — not about my books; this was a crime fiction event in a "booktown".
The place was the small former gold-rush town of Clunes, in central Victoria — two hours from Melbourne, and an hour or so from the city of Ballarat, which was built on the profits of the gold rush that took place here in the 1850's.
Clunes was one of the first places in Victoria where gold was discovered. By 1860 it had a population of more than 6000. It was prosperous enough for substantial community buildings to be built in the 1870's — churches, schools, a hospital, a free library, as well as local government buildings like the Town Hall and Court House. The main streets were even lit by gas. (The photo below is of the primary school.)
Clunes, being a pretty little town with a well-preserved 19th century heritage, has always had its fair share of tourists, but the community has gone one step further and decided to become a "booktown." And it's obviously working, as these days Clunes has a population of around 1700 people.
What is a "booktown" you ask? It's a town that focuses on books. In the case of Clunes that means lots of shops that sell books — new, second-hand, and antiquarian, plus a focus on encouraging literary events, and a number of "pop-up" book stalls that come for the events.
In 2007 the first annual Clunes Booktown book fair was held, and the event has been growing in popularity ever since. It suffered, of course, with Covid, when all events were cancelled, but this year it started up again, with good social distancing practices, and while I'm told the numbers weren't nearly up to previous years, I was still pretty impressed, and enjoyed myself immensely.
When I drove up last weekend I knew I was getting close when the beige paddocks and grey-green gum trees gave way to bright splashes of autumn color — autumn color only comes from exotic trees imported from overseas, and the sight of them signals an old settlement.
The main street of Clunes is filled with lovely old-fashioned shops. I was a little disturbed to see images like the one at the top of the page in a shop window, and I hoped that the spines of books hadn't been sliced off to make this display, but I soon realized they were everywhere — even in the local pub, and were to show their support for books and Booktown.
This weekend was all about Book Clubs, and the focus of the first day was Crime. Despite the murderous topics covered, the atmosphere was lovely, with groups of people from book clubs having travelled up together, and others coming together and meeting for the first time. Everywhere, in cafes and restaurants and shops, in parks and in the streets, there were people talking about their book clubs, their love of books, talking about the sessions they'd just been to or were about to attend, and of course swapping titles of favorite books and authors. And of course there were author talks, book sales and signings. Book-lovers heaven.
My first event was this crime panel, made up of one of my favorite crime writers, Garry Disher, as well as Karina Kilmore (debut novelist) and Robert Gott (who sets his books in the 1940's), with the moderator, Jane Sullivan. It was a fascinating, wide-ranging discussion, from the influence of childhood reading, the importance of setting for each writer, the market for Australian crime fiction (it's very big in Germany) and how each author works.
The second panel I attended was called "Crime Takes to the Back Roads – Interrogating Rural Noir", with writers Lyn Yeowart and Katherine Kovacic, and Sandi Wallace and chaired by Maggie Baron. Another fascinating discussion about novels set in the country and how writers write. Katherine Kovacic, a veterinarian turned Art History expert turned novelist, also talked about why she changed careers and how her first book was inspired by the true-life unsolved murder of artist's model and painter Molly Deane in the 1940's.
In between sessions there were also plenty of interesting craft and historical shops to investigate. I bought some socks made on this fascinating machine — you can see some socks made on it draped over the lady's knee.
And I loved exploring a big old warehouse where giant slabs of native wood were waiting to be bought, polished up and made into tabletops or kitchen benches. And Madam Saddler looked pretty interesting, though it wasn't a shop open for exploration — it was a cottage to rent.
I ate well with good, fresh and interesting food, and excellent coffee, as well as a visit to Top Shop Takeaway on my arrival on the first night, where I was served a whopping traditional aussie hamburger (large beef patty, egg, bacon, cheese, beetroot, onion, tomato, lettuce and ketchup) which certainly filled me up!
Unfortunately I wasn't able to get accommodation for the whole weekend, so I didn't attend the Sunday events, but I'm sure they were just as successful. I'll certainly be attending more book-lovers events at Clunes in the future. There are booktowns all over the world — here are ten listed, mainly in Europe. You can read more about Clunes here.
So what about you — are you a member of a book club? Have you ever visited a booktown? If you could go to one, who would you like to see on a panel?
(And if you'd like to see more photos of Clunes, I've posted some on my own blog)