bc DYMOCK'S BOOK ARCADE, George Street, Sydney, NSW. Glenn Paton's memories.

Glenn Paton recounts memories of the time he spent working for one of mid-20th Century Australia's greatest booksellers.

Just ONE page on the Collecting Books and Magazines web site based in Australia.

Page updated 9th October, 2010.

Dymock's, George Street, Sydney, NSW. This shot was taken from a late 1940s catalogue. The photographer was working from just above the front entrance. Nowadays, a coffee shop occupies the landing at this end. Prior to the 1960s,  a secondhand department and lending library occupied separate floors. The building in which this shop is situated, the Dymock's Building, is listed and will be preserved.


I started at Dymock's in December 1966 as a casual and ended up in the General Literature Section. The section sold art books, literature classics and books on Australia.

Just before I started they had closed the secondhand books section.

The stores hours were 9.00am to 5.30 pm Monday to Friday and 9.00 am to 12.00 midday Saturday. Only the shop staff worked on Saturdays, the admin staff started work at 8.30 during the week. Staff discount on purchases was 25% but this changed later to 15%.

When you entered the store the stationary department was on the right starting with pen sets and other stationary gift sets and ending with the arts supplies at the back of the store. I can’t remember what book section was at the front on the left as they had a few changes over the years, though I think it was Children’s Books or General Books. The sections on the ground floor were - General Practical, General Literature, Children’s Books and Paperbacks. On the left at the front of the store there was a small staircase that led up to the mezzanine floor with the Education Department. Facing the back of the store high school textbooks was on the left and primary and infants books were on the right. There was a large desk in the right hand corner front for the manager of the section. Still on the mezzanine floor - just before the staircase in the centre of the store on the right hand side, Dymock's had a large Linguaphone language section. This closed down shortly after I started.

At the top of the central stairs on the right hand side was the Nautical Section that sold Naval charts, nautical guides and military maps. The person working in this section was an ex-navy cartographer who also updated the charts. This was also the start of the Technical Branch. The Technical Branch sold technical textboosk, science textbooks, books on vehicles, aircraft, etc. A popular line of books for the branch were the photography books because at that time the censorship laws were quite tough and figure photography books sold well until the censorship laws were relaxed. Also a part of the Technical Branch located at the end of the store was the Medical section. They mainly sold medical textbooks. In the centre of the Technical Branch was another staircase that led up to the Directors', General Managers' and Accountants' offices and also their secretaries.

At this time Dymock's had a pneumatic air system. Each section had access to the air tubes and when a sale was made a docket was written out and this together with the money was put into the tube which was delivered upstairs to accounts. Any change was put into the tubes by the accounts section and returned to the sales floor. This system was abolished shortly after I arrived and each section was given a cash register.

In the centre of the store on the left hand side (facing the rear of the store) was a small goods lift that ran from the basement up to the accounts section. It was primarily designed to carry books from the bulk store in the basement to the shop floors. It was small but a person could squeeze in with their knees pressed into their face; not allowed of course but it was tried on occasions when working overtime. Next to the central staircase leading up to the mezzanine floor was a small staircase that led to the basement. Under the central stairs on the ground floor was the office of the Stationary Section Manager. In the basement starting from the front of the store were the staff tea-room, then the opening and costing section and opposite that the ordering section. If the book you wanted was in print, Dymocks would order it for you no matter where it came from. Halfway down the floor on the left was a men’s toilet and on the right the stationary bulk store, then the staff entrance that led out to the arcade. Next to that was the staff manager’s office. There used to be a book where staff signed in; this was replaced by a bundy clock system.

At the bottom of the stairs from the ground floor was another staircase that led to the ladies' toilet and an alleyway that bordered the book bulk store that led to another men’s toilet. Opposite the book bulk store on the left were the despatch and receiving sections. At the end of the building and on the right was the section that supplied the bookstalls at Circular Quay and the race meetings on long weekends. They supplied newspapers, magazines, cigarettes, film, souvenirs etc.

During this time Dymock's also had a bookshop at Brookvale as well as the newsstands on each of the wharves at Circular Quay, and it operated “in-stores” within department stores in country locations, this started with the ( I can’t remember the chain of stores, I think they were taken over by Grace Bros, I know they had stores in Wollongong and Tamworh) department stores and at the peak Dymock's had about 50 of these in-stores operating all around the state.

Another little known store that Dymocks ran for several years was the one at Sydney Grammar School. The company had a basement room in one of the out buildings and sold books and stationary to students on Thursdays each week except during school holidays.

Dymocks also sold books to a number of private schools around NSW and actually sent a sales team at the start of the year to several schools in the Sydney metropolitan area. This included Patrician Brothers Fairfield, Patrician Brothers Blacktown and St Ursula’s College Kingsgrove. Kambala Girls School and Ascham were also large clients of Dymock's.

Prior to Christmas the normal Dymock's practice was to hire high school students to help with the pre-Christmas rush All sections were busy during this time except the Education Department. Their rush started after the school holidays and Dymock’s then employed Uni students to cover that busy period.

One of the jobs of the juniors was to go to the restaurant in the basement of the Strand Arcade (I think it was the Blue Lagoon) and get the directors (the Forsyth Brothers) lunch, the favourite being lobster mornay. Another job was going into the pub next door with a 2-wheel trolley and picking up the drink supply for the boardroom. This consisted mainly of cases of white wine and scotch.

I was asked whether I would like to return after Christmas to help with the pre-school rush and as I had no immediate plans I returned. This time I was employed in the education department. Some memories of those days - Customer wanting a textbook for their child. “Do you have the novel my son needs for school?"
Do you know the title or author?
"No but it’s got a red cover.”
This happened often.

Around this time I was also asked if I would like to go to Patrician Brothers Blacktown on Australia Day to sell textbooks. I was told that it would be a pretty easy day as we would be there for a couple of days and more that likely we would be finished around lunch time. The only trouble was somebody told the parents that that was the only day that Dymock’s was going to be at the school so if you didn’t get your books that day you would miss out. Well, we finished about 8.00pm that night, no lunch and surrounded by hundreds of angry parents.

Another time as a shy quiet 16 year old at St Ursula’s I recall being sent to get something from the car a couple of minutes before morning break and coming back through hundreds of screaming school girls, it very embarrassing.

After the Education Department rush I was asked to help out in the book bulk store. I did this until the storeman left and then I took over fulltime. This time was just after the introduction of decimal currency [14th February, 1966] and Dymock's still had thousands of 'Betty and Jim' maths books and other titles in pounds, shillings and pence. I was all for throwing them in the bin but the General Manager, Mr Alexander, wouldn’t have this so I boxed them all up and we sent them to the missionaries in New Guinea.

They also had a large stock of out of date textbooks, including lots of books in Latin. The GM was always reluctant to get rid of these in case they came back in vogue. Eventually we managed to trickle them in to sales bit by bit until we got rid of them all. Space was at a premium in the bulk store particularly around Christmas and the New Year so it was important to get rid of the dead wood.

Mr Alexander started going to England and the US on buying trips. He would go over and buy up all sorts of remainder stock. At that time it wasn’t really of a high quality and a lot of the titles were not really relevant, eg., lots of books on baseball or unique American pastimes. I think he made about 2 trips a year alternating between the US and England.

I’d go as far as to say he was probably the pioneer of remainder books.

It was not unusual to be told at 4.30pm that there were 6 semi-trailer loads of books on the way and we’d have to unload them today. He always looked after the staff and always gave the managers some money to buy the staff some drinks after one of these deliveries.

Often we had that many books come in that we had to use any unoccupied office space in the block next door for storage. They also had a building in Newtown next to the primary school were they stored books.

Dymocks was also a distributor for overseas books, primarily Sphere paperbacks although they did distribute other companies. The Sphere books were very popular, if not a bit on the sexually explicit side, but proved popular with other bookstores. They maintained a couple of floors in a building in Dixon Street in Chinatown. I frequently went down there to help out, unpacking overseas shipments.

Around this time the company bought in some time and motion experts who went around timing everyone in what they did. Some of the major changes that occurred: -

Individual cash registers for sections were abolished and centralised registers installed.

The opening and costing sections were moved to the back of the basement and enclosed in a wire cage, the large tables used for sorting the books were scrapped and replaced by rollers and trays. This meant that the storeman opened and placed the books on trays on the rollers and the markers stamped the books and placed th m direct onto trolleys so that the books only needed to be lifted once.

It was also decided to do away with the bookstalls at the Quay and to stop supporting the race days, therefore that section was abolished, and the despatch section moved into that area and the opening and costing section moved into the area vacated by them.

The 2 bulk stores were amalgamated into one and located where the book bulk store was, to save space the area was redesigned using compactus shelving. The area where the costing used to be located was used for storing remainder stock. A new ordering system was introduced using duplicated ordering forms.

I was eventually given the job of looking after the school orders as well as the bulk store. This entailed liaising with the schools and writing out the orders and arranging delivery to the schools. After the review that side of the business was scaled down as being uneconomical.

Eventually I was transferred to the Receiving and Costing Section and eventually became the costing supervisor, one of the jobs entailed checking books that arrived from overseas by mail. Dymocks used to receive their overseas orders by 2 methods, the main one was through a shipping agent, where all the books were packed in the UK and sent by surface mail through a shipping agent. All the documentation was examined by customs and if everything was OK the shipment was eventually delivered to the store. If there were any books that were suspect, Customs would advise us that we would have to put the books aside. Once a week customs officers would come down and examine any books put aside.

It was very rare for any books from other countries to come by this method. Most other overseas books came from the US and these mostly came by mail. It was not until the bulk buying of remainder stock that large quantities of books from the US were sent via shipping agents. Any books that came by mail had to be looked at and if suspected of being pornographic or violent had to be put aside for inspection by customs. I remember one book that customs stopped from being released. It was a flicker book and when you flicked the pages the lady stripped! Shortly after this the laws on pornography relaxed somewhat. If any books were suspected of being pornographic they had to be locked in a cupboard until the next customs visit. Of course these books proved popular to staff that wanted a quick read before the visit. If customs agreed that they were suspect they would take a copy and issue a receipt. If they decided that they were banned they would request the invoice and check the quantities received. They would then stand and watch while you packed the books for return to the publisher. After packing they would accompany you to the post office and wait until the books were posted off.

Stocktaking was held on the last weekend of June, after the shop closed on Saturday at 12.00 the stocktake would begin. As I was in charge of the costing section it was also my job to train everyone in how to do the stocktake. Before the weekend everyone had a practice go. The costing codes were simple; a numeric code for the year and an alpha code for the cost price. The alpha code was WALTERDYMOK so W=1, A=2, L=3, T=4, E=5, R=6, D=7, Y=8, M=9, O=0 and K=repeat. Therefore if a book had a code of 74 above W/RK it meant that the book was purchased in the 4th qtr of 1967 and cost $1.66. The stickers were also coloured coded and in the late 60’s changed to a larger size and with only 2 periods.

I think the books were depreciated over 4 years then they were supposed to be reduced and put on sale. This didn’t always happen as during stocktake older stock of current titles would always be found and these would be pushed to the front to be sold first, hopefully.

Around one of the reviews the consultants decided that a scheme was required to entice staff to sell more stock so a staff incentive scheme was introduced. Every branch was given a budget for the month and if they exceeded the budget they would get that percentage of their salary as a bonus. This was fine for anyone who worked on the sales floor but it didn’t apply to any of the support staff working downstairs in the ordering, opening or despatch sections. This caused a lot of friction between the staff, as the shop floor staff always wanted their new stock opened and marked before anybody else. Being in the costing and opening section meant that I was always being harassed by the staff to get their stock up to them. It also meant being harassed by the company salesmen who sold the books and stationary to Dymock's, as they wanted their stock marked first as well.

I remember when I started that Dymock's still had a good stock of William books which they published. I wish now that I had bought them all.

At this time Dymock's had there own window dressing section. There was a lady who was an accomplished artist who used to paint all of the adverts and flyers; she would also dress the windows. It wasn’t unusual to see her hurrying off home with half a dozen paintbrushes sticking out of her hair. When she left, management decided to just buy pre-printed adverts and flyers but a guy from stationary called Murray took over who was quite good at it. I often worked overtime giving him a hand although it was embarrassing having the people peer in on you from the street.

The manager of the Medical Section collected snakes; quite often he would bring one of his pets in to work in his briefcase. He was also a very keen anti-shoplifter who one day tackled a thief into a glass display case, smashing the case to pieces. The shoplifter was a bit worse for wear, also.

Paul Hamlyn books made a big impact in the late 60’s. They were popular with management because the company originally gave 50% discount on the stock, later reduced to 40%, and the books were supplied as on sale or return. Originally the supplier also came into the store and set up all the displays.

Another book that made an impact was 'Portnoy's Complaint'; the Director said that he wasn’t going to have that filth in his shop. Someone told him that Angus & Robertson had sold a couple of hundred copies in one day. The next day we had stock as well.

Staff could borrow books if they wrapped the covers in brown paper. Paperbacks were not supposed to be borrowed because it was too easy to damage the books.

Dymock's was a great place to work; it always had a feeling of being a family business, I remember once that my house was broken into the day before I was due to go to Surfers Paradise on holidays. All of my money was stolen. I had to work the next morning, which was a Saturday. When the staff found out that I had been robbed, they had a collection for me and the accountant organised an interest free loan of all the money I had lost.

They were also hard if you disobeyed rules. After the reorganisation when they centralised the cash registers, one of the cashiers was asked by a customer to wrap up a bunch of records, which she did. The customer then grabbed the package and walked out without paying. The cashier was sacked.

Another time one of the sales staff went out and bought a milkshake for morning tea. He was sacked for leaving the building during work hours.

At one time the storeman from the special orders branch and I had a friendly rivalry, playing practical jokes on one another. One day I had the opportunity to tip some Epsom salts in his cup of tea, which he used to drink in his area. I was sitting in the staff lunch room casually talking to some of the girls from the floor when he walked in and poured his cup of tea into my dust coat pocket. Talk about putting an end to the mood.

Somehow we had found a bottle of ether and while in the bulk store so we opened the bottle to see what it was like. After a while the GM came down and wanted to know if we smelt something as there was a strong smell of ether coming out of the air-conditioning in the shop and some of the customers were feeling ill. Of course we didn’t smell anything.

No smoking was the rule in the bulk store so one day when smoking in the store the GM walked in for an inspection. The cigarette was quickly stubbed out on the wall and the butt shoved into the dustcoat pocket. All was going well until I noticed smoke pouring out of the pocket. Much smacking against the side of the coat eventually put out the fire. Thankfully the GM didn’t seem to notice.

Boredom on the floor - If you worked on the mezzanine in Education you could break the boredom by timing yourself on how fast you could walk around the floor. Another way of beating the boredom was by trying to beat the other staff to customers to see who could serve the most during the day.

Another day was spent packing boxes of globes onto the upper shelves of the store, so far so good, climb down the ladder pick up the box, climb up the ladder stack the box in the shelf. Only trouble was after a while I decided to step back and admire my work. Too bad I was still on the top rung of the ladder at the time.

I left in May 1974 and about 3 months later they had another review and sacked nearly all of the staff. I believe that this was the end of the friendly family oriented -tore. The few times I went back I got the impression of the store being a cold impersonal shell of its old self. #

A great article, Glenn. I hope you can expand it with further memories. - John

Any problems or questions? Email John at chiefchook@gmail.com

Back to Collecting Books & Magazines index.