Celebrating 100 years of Fullers Bookshop
To many, a good bookstore is a place of magic. Between the thousands of titles and millions of pages lie countless journeys of delight. One can flit away on the coattails of imagination, be silently immersed in raw emotion, or explore the special gift of wonderous knowledge. Even tales of true sorrow come fringed with a morose sense of joy for the reader – being transported to a whole new world is a special gift bestowed upon us by the most talented of writers. While that world may be dismal, the journey itself often remains nothing short of compelling.
Whilst many of us appreciate the value of a good read, we typically give little thought to the talent of a good bookseller. Often preferring to hide away amongst their charges, such characters tend to let their wares speak for themselves. They choose to wave their wand behind the scenes, casting careful spells that ensure our minds are presented with bountiful treasures from which to choose.
Clive Tilsley is one such character – a dedicated bookseller to the core.
In this, the 100th year of Fullers Bookshop, current owner Clive speaks openly about the shaping of a Tasmanian icon. An institution that has quietly woven its way into the cultural fabric of Hobart. “At the end of the day, I have always been a reader. It’s pretty simple…I just love books.”
Clive is a gentle and articulate soul. One of those people who shirks the limelight, preferring to hide behind a quiet façade. An intriguing mix of dry sarcasm and humility. Get him talking about books however, and he’s happy to sit with a coffee and while away the hours chattering about his favourites – poetry, art and Tasmanian history. It quickly becomes clear why he’s successfully held the Fullers baton for almost four decades.
Clive’s love affair with Fullers began as a small child. “Back then we lived in Launceston, but I still recall a trip to Hobart as a boy in the mid-sixties,” he reminisces. “Dad took me into the store and he spent about 80 pounds that day. I remember I loved spending time in there and dad himself commenting as we left, ‘Now, that’s a real bookshop.’”
The son of well-educated parents who were both avid readers, Clive recalls a childhood surrounded by literature. “Both my parents were readers, and I also had a great English teacher at school who got me into Emily Dickinson, she even ended up offering me her collection,” he explains.
“In those days it was a real treat to walk down to Fullers after school. Back then of course, I wasn’t aware of its history.”
Bill Fuller opened the bookstore on 16 February 1920. It was a Monday, the start of a new week and unbeknownst to Bill, the start of a whole new era. With experience under his belt working at both his father’s store, Walch’s, in Hobart and Angus and Robertson’s in Sydney – and freshly returned from World War I – Bill and his bookseller wife Frances decided to open a bookstore of their own.
The first half of the twentieth century saw interesting times in the local book trade. The Depression played a critical role, businesses amalgamated, and all manner of lending libraries, second hand acquisitions and galleries were trialled with varying levels of success. During the Second World War however, Bill met Cedric Pearce, of Pearce Pickering Jazz Band fame, and a new Fullers era began.
Cedric struck a deal with Bill and Frances to work for Fullers with a view to taking over the store. The arrangement worked well for the couple who were ageing and looking to take a step back from the coalface. In 1954, Cedric became a full partner and ran the shop from that point onwards. He positioned the store as a literary escape for the educated, deliberately maintaining differentiation from his main competitor, OBM, who catered to the mass market. Cedric’s love of literature and music permeated the Fullers experience.
Bill and Frances Fuller continued their association with the store until their deaths. Notably, they were involved in the Cat and Fiddle project, helping bring to life a modern shopping arcade through the heart of the city. Although Bill passed away in 1960 and did not live to see its completion, Frances was a part of Fuller’s chaotic move to the arcade location in 1961.
Cedric and his brother Ian took ownership of the store soon thereafter. For almost 20 years they successfully built on the Fullers name, focussing on literature and poetry whilst building a particular platform for Tasmanian content and Tasmanian writers. As noted in the Australian Bookseller and Publisher, following Cedric’s death in 1982, he ‘devoted time and energy to developing booksellers and budding authors…a man with wonderfully warm, sensitive personality who loved a joke, a good yarn and a good whiskey.’
Shortly thereafter Ian Drinkwater took ownership of Fuller’s, relocating the store to Murray Street opposite Hadley’s Hotel. At the time, Ian had a number of other bookstore interests and was not one for being tied to the counter. Ian had employed Clive in the past at his Mary Fisher Bookshop in Launceston and in recent years had watched him turn his own bookstore, Twelvetrees, in Sandy Bay into a commercial success. He approached Clive and asked him if he was interested in buying Fullers.
As Clive will attest, “It was financially difficult at the time, but I saw Fullers as the pinnacle of bookstores in Tasmania. Although the store was making a loss at the time, I saw it as an opportunity not to be passed up.” Suddenly the young boy who recalled standing amongst the Fullers shelves all those years ago, was now at the helm.
“The position opposite Hadley’s was always problematic,” explains Clive. “It was a pokey little building and difficult to manage. One day whilst out and about I spotted 140 Collins Street up for lease – a much bigger store with a significantly greater passing trade. We moved there in 1992.”
“As it happened, the store was just across the road from Bill Fuller’s original 1920 site.”
Despite the huge increase in rent that came with the improved location, Fullers went from strength to strength. Sales increased from $900 000 to $1.6 million. “Position, position, position,” smiles Clive. “It was a great store with excellent lighting and huge windows. There was far more happening on Collins Street and our window displays certainly drew the traffic in. I remember buying 250 dictionaries just for a window display and it being a huge hit.”
For many of today’s locals, Fullers really came into its own during its time at 140 Collins Street. Clive’s installation of a literary café transformed the business to a new level. Indeed, the Afterword Café’s magic elixir of coffee and words saw Fullers claim the 2002 National Bookshop of the Year award.
“We were only the second bookstore in the country to operate a café,” says Clive. “It worked very well for us…selling on the ground floor and the café on the upper level. Books and coffee are such a good partnership. But let’s just say that at Christmas time those stairs kept us very fit!”
Clive and wife Ros were drawn back to Launceston for a period, between 2001 and 2014 opening a second Fullers store in the north of the state. Whilst quickly becoming successful and twice earning fame as the ABC Centre of the Year, the couple eventually sold and returned to Hobart for family reasons.
For the past five years Clive has presided over the current location at 131 Collins Street. “This site offers respite from stairs, more space for stock and improved office space,” he explains, sweeping his eyes around the store. “The café has far better accessibility and we can welcome prams and wheelchairs here far more easily.”
Clive had the store layout and café designed to take full advantage of the space and the striking views of kunanyi/Mount Wellington. “I never tire of taking in that view,” he smiles, nodding towards the morning light streaming in through the generous windows. “It’s also a great space for launches and events as we can fit about 200 people in here comfortably.”
When Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood spoke at Fullers in 2001, the 1100 strong audience was the largest she commanded throughout her entire Australian tour. It was a watershed moment for Fullers, pushing them under the nose of Australian publishers. “We’ve continued to host all sorts of events. These days we’d have about 150 different events each year and they all form part of Hobart’s cultural life,” says Clive. “From book launches to literary foundations and many reading groups…at any one time we probably have about seven reading groups going and it’s a pleasure to see people exploring literature and challenging themselves. I’ve been happy to support most things that are tied to reading, education and knowledge.”
A successful foray into publishing has also seen Clive lend his support to a number of historical Tasmanian titles, with a particular bent towards local authors. Fullers publishing now sits behind over 75 different books, exploring everything from stage coaches to mining.
On the 16 February 2020, a packed event at the Hobart Town Hall drew together a community grateful to have Fullers as part of their lives. Amongst the crowd were four grandchildren of Bill Fuller, fittingly in attendance to celebrate their grandfather’s creation one full century ago. One wonders if Bill would ever have envisaged the unique community and sense of belonging that the Fullers brand represents today.
In typical fashion, Clive addressed the crowd in his less is more manner, acknowledging those that had come before him and their role in turning a little Hobart bookstore into a Australian literary institution. In his own words, “I believe in books and think this is very important.”
Illustrating Clive’s own beliefs, rather than an indulgent stroll down the Fullers memory lane, the official centenary event was marked with words from literary-centered and community enterprises Connect 42 and The Smith Family. “Fullers supports Connect 42 and runs a book collection program for Risdon Prison. In a state where the literacy rate sits around 48%, programs like this are important,” remarks Clive. Speaking of The Smith Family’s work to support the education of children, he adds, “At the end of last year about 250 books were donated by Fullers customers. We also support the Indigenous Literacy Foundation and donate all the money we raise through gift wrapping each Christmas to them.”
A vibrant conversation between Australian legend Ted Eagan and journalist Hilary Burden topped off the official centenary celebrations. Ted’s tales of outback adventures let the audience savour a message that sits at the core of the Fullers philosophy – explore, learn and read.
The Fullers story is now neatly encapsulated in The Bookshelf Miscellany No.2, Published Infrequently. Fittingly, the title takes its name from a 1934 publication by Bill Fuller himself, with the original Bookshelf Miscellany not only being published infrequently, but indeed only once. Local writer Alison Alexander has done a superb job of documenting the bookshop’s history, providing unique insight into its many moves, the corresponding local events of the time, and the intriguing world of each of the booksellers who have steered Fullers’ journey over the past century.
The Fullers name remain synonymous with local literary creatives. Its warm and welcoming soul continues to share its diverse collection of literary genius, whilst retaining a soft spot for Tasmanian writers and works about our island home. It’s a place to linger, breathe in the print, and share quiet murmurs with kindred souls over a coffee or two. And, of course, to delight in the iconic antique loveseat that continues to sit demurely near the front window.
With retirement looming for Clive, this unassuming bookseller is preparing to hand the Fullers baton to its next custodian. “I’m looking forward to having some time back before too long,” he remarks. “Drawing, painting, gardening, exercise and of course, reading, are all on my agenda. Books are the best way to exercise your brain.”
The Bookshelf Miscellany No 2, Published Infrequently – A centenary history of Fullers Bookshop. Fullers Publishing 2020.