May 26, 2016
Melbourne bookstore to close because one jerk complained
by Liam O’Brien
In yet another instance of an uptight Australian snitch ruining it for the rest of us indie bookstore-goers, a beloved bookstore is being forced to close in St. Kilda, a suburb of Melbourne governed by the nearby City of Port Phillip. The local council, fielding a complaint from a whiny neighbor, found the store to be in violation of Byzantine zoning laws. Melissa Davey reports for The Guardian:
One of the owners of Bookhouse, Ben Kemp, said the decision reflected the inflexibility of the City of Port Phillip. He described it as “illogical” and said that red tape had harmed his “inoffensive” small business.
Kemp said the problem started when he and his wife first opened their Robe Street store, when a residential neighbour walked in and told him he didn’t like the bookshop. Kemp said he was surprised by the complaint, especially since the area is known for more controversial businesses, such as sex shops.
“We were gobsmacked, as the store is completely inoffensive,” Kemp said. “We have a lovely display of books in the window and there are no signs or billboards on the street. Little old ladies walk past and pop in just to tell us how much they like the fact that we are here.”
This one hater’s complaint made its way to the local council, who determined that Bookhouse had violated local zoning laws by operating a commercial business in a residentially-zoned area if St. Kilda. Kemp provided evidence that that the space had been rented by various businesses for more than fifteen years, qualifying it for an “existing rights use” exemption, but the council remained unpersuaded.
“We dug up old leases, we tracked people down and had 12 statutory declarations from people in the street who said it had always been some sort of business,” said Kemp, who moved the bookstore to the premises from a previous location 500m up the road.
“But the council said there was a dressmaker who used the building but they could not be sure she used it as a shop, so they rejected our application.”
Kemp does admit that he neglected to observe a clause in his lease that would have required the council’s approval of the specific merchandise he was planning to sell before the store’s opening, but points out that this provision is targeted to the class of goods sold in sex shops.
And while the building’s owner has the right to appeal the decision or seek an alternate planning permit, Kemp and his wife have decided that the uncertainties this involves make it infeasible to continue doing business in their current location. It’s a sad commentary on the intractable nature of local government and the challenges faced by small businesses of any kind, and Kemp sums it up bleakly well:
“We’re tired of living in the unknown. We thought we had fought off the worst of the problems facing small businesses after many years in the space, especially the challenges facing bookstores, but this has left us with a bad taste in our mouth. There is enormous community support for us overall, yet the council just has no room to manoeuvre or exercise common sense.
“Small businesses are faced with such narrow frameworks to operate within.”
Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.