Kris and Loretta Hemensley at the Collected Works Bloomsday Celebration 2016. Photo courtesy of Richard Mudford

‘If the Collected Works Bookshop were a poem,’ literary editor Jason Steger wrote in October 2018, ‘it would be an epic, one that spanned if not centuries then at least decades.’ Steger was writing an early memorial to this ‘unique shop’, and to Kris and Loretta Hemensley, whose shop it was. After nearly 35 years, it was set to close the following month. 1

The shop ‘was the brainwave of writer and publisher, Robert Kenny, its first coordinator,’ Kris remembered.2 Its beginnings were in 1984, in Collingwood, then Fitzroy, ‘the natural issue of the Small Publishers Collective’;3 it moved to the city in 1987, first to the Flinders Lane Arcade building and, in 1999, to the basement at 254 Flinders Street. 

In January 2003, ‘by which time the original collective running the shop had long dissolved, leaving only the Hemensleys and Catherine O’Brien to run it’, and with the encouragement of the late Vali Myers (d 2003),4 Collected Works moved to the first floor of the Nicholas Building, once ‘a state-of-the-art skyscraper’ that, in more recent times, became ‘home to novelists, milliners, and artists reaching ten storeys above Swanston Street.’5

For years, writers from around Australia and across the globe, made beelines to the Collected Works Bookshop. American novelist, Annie Proulx, and Nobel Prize winning Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, for example; 6 or Australian poet, John Kinsella. ‘It’s been a fair while since I visited the city,’ Kinsella wrote in 2012, ‘but the first thing I did this time was visit Kris Hemensley’s remarkable and essential Collected Works in Swanston Street.’7

Collected Works Bookshop 2018. Photo courtesy of Richard Mudford

Australian poet, Geoffrey Lehmann, writing in 2015, hailed it as ‘perhaps the only large specialist poetry bookshop in the Anglophone world’;8 poet Geoff Page, writing two years later, described Collected Works as ‘unique in Australia in being solely devoted to “poetry and ideas”’, and Kris ‘as the cheery, indefatigable and quixotic owner.’9 In 2008, in an essay, ‘Practising poetry: the real work and joy’, written when his association with the shop was approaching its 25th year, Kris offered thoughts on how he and the shop evolved. ‘I’ve never had such a constantly public life,’ he reflected, ‘and, indeed, enjoy the daily contact with poets from near and far, not to mention with readers and students of poetry, who comprise the bulk of the shop’s clientele, and thrive on the numerous poetry readings, book launchings and other literary events.’10

In the following year, in an address prepared for a ‘Flight of the mind’ conference at the National Library of Australia, Australian novelist Alex Miller acknowledged ‘the Melbourne poet and bookseller Kris Hemensley’ as one who helped him find confidence ‘to know the joy of writing.’11 How many more such tales are there?  A valedictory poem by Melbourne poet, Mal Morgan, ‘To Kris Hemensley’, published months before Morgan’s death in November 1999, captures the world of questioning, striving and achievement they had participated in,12 an outline of which was captured 20 years earlier by poetry editor and reviewer, Martin Duwell. ‘We can no more hide in classrooms as in our generations,’ Kris told Duwell. ‘We’re at a watershed,’ he noted: ‘life should account for itself better than it has.’13

Loretta and Kris Hemensley at Collected Works 2016. Photo courtesy of Richard Mudford

Kris and Loretta personified a commitment for something better, a commitment that turned Collected Works into ‘Melbourne’s hidden treasure.’14 The shop’s location on the first floor of the Nicholas Building saw it smack-bang in the centre of the city, in a setting that writer Ben Eltham likened to the fictional Parisian apartment building in Georges Perec’s novel, Life: a user’s manualEltham, writing in 2010, had noted also that a copy of Perec’s novel could be found at Collected Works on the ‘Contemporary European’ shelf.15

Artist Gay Hawkes remembered the shop as heaven:

I would enter the Nicholas Building – bliss already – past the metal gates, up the marble stairs, past the huge op-shop, the button shop and then – I’d part the bead curtains, enter the pearly gates and into heaven.16

How this sense of heaven was achieved and maintained within a society that demands regular income and regular turnover is a tale of generosity, idealism and, above all, rock-solid team work. ‘There had been moments of hesitation,’ poet Laurie Duggan wrote in 2011, ‘but Collected Works decided to host a benefit and to go ahead with the new lease.’17 And so its spirit of independence, curiosity and hospitality continued at a time when, as Australia’s distinguished pre-historian, John Mulvaney, warned, there is a shifting ‘emphasis from wisdom to relevance, from understanding to immediate material outcomes.’18

Kris Hemensley at the launch of his book Your Scratch Entourage, 2018. Photo courtesy of Richard Mudford

Profits were channelled into new stock, Duggan recounted, and old stock was not removed. It gave the shop an aura of its own. Despite its reluctance to advertise widely, it became well enough known ‘for overseas visitors to divert there, even when time is precious.’ 19 The overseas visitors, Duggan wrote, included musician Thurston Moore from American band Sonic Youth, who ‘bought a swag of hard to get works relating to the Beat Generation.’ 20 Kris remembered that, while it’s ‘right to mention the Beats, Thurston Moore’s main plunder was New York School poetry’,21 a reminder of the range of intriguing material that could be found in the shop.

Diderot and D’Alembert, in their Encyclopédie, stated that a bookseller requires ‘intelligence and enlightenment’, and that the ‘profession is to be regarded as one of the most noble and distinguished there is.’22  More recently, American sociologist, Edward Shils, wrote of good bookshops as places ‘for intellectual conviviality’, which he likened to ‘conversation, not as a “civilized art” but as a necessary part of the habitat of a lively intelligence in touch with the world.’23 This sets out Kris and Loretta’s achievement, an achievement that allowed ‘poetry and ideas’ to flourish.

‘Go for it, Joe!’, Kris wrote in a poem dedicated to Joe Dolce,24

—do what you have to—

criticize—clarify—and always

with love—

Loretta Hemensley with Library staff members Roger Smith and Frank Lovece at the Dennis Spiteri exhibition opening, 1990. Photo by Walter Struve

Postscript

I would like to dedicate this blog to the memory of Loretta Hemensley (1945-2021), ‘a peace activist who was writing stories and painting, an actor, a folkie with an eye and ear for blues and rock’n’roll,’ as Kris wrote of the time when they met;25 and to Kris himself, with his ‘warm accent of old Hampshire and more recent Dorset overlaid with Melbourne’, as his British friend, Lucas Weschke, noted.26 

References

  1. Steger, J, 2018, ‘End of the line for poetry bookshop’, Age, 20 October, p 16
  2. Hemensley, K, 2021, personal communication (14 December)
  3. Hemensley, K, 2017, Collected Works Bookshop (part 1), viewed 29 March 2022, <https://www.tellurianresearchpress.com.au/blog/collected-works-bookshop-part-i>
  4. Hemensley, K, 2021, personal communication (15 December)
  5. Griffin, M, 2004, ‘Upstairs downstairs’, Age, 15 December, p 44
  6. Sullivan, J, 2005, ‘It’s no joke, but a well deserved tribute’, Sunday Age, 27 March, p 35
  7. Kinsella, J, 2012, ‘Melbourne shows poetic worth in all its lyric forms’, Sunday Age, 21 October, p 17
  8. Lehmann, G, 2015, ‘The Princess who became a Queen’, Quadrant, vol 59, no 4, p 58
  9. Page, G, 2017, ‘Keeping a keen eye on the past’, Weekend Australian, 3 June, p 18
  10. Hemensley, K, 2008, ‘Practising poetry: the real work and joy’, Island, no 113, p 25
  11. Miller, A, 2009, ‘Waxing wiser than oneself’, Australian, 7 October, p 24
  12. Morgan, M, 1999, ‘To Kris Hemensely’, Quadrant, vol 43, no 6, p 52
  13. Duwell, M, 1977, ‘Where we are now: an interview with Kris Hemensley’, Makar: a magazine of new writing, October, p 18
  14. Sullivan, J, 2005, ‘It’s no joke, but a well deserved tribute’, Sunday Age, 27 March, p 35
  15. Eltham, B, 2010, ‘The Nicholas Building: a user’s manual’, Meanjin, vol 69, no 3, p 66
  16. Hawkes, G, ‘My Friend Loretta’ (undated), quoted with permission
  17. [17] Duggan, L, 2011, ‘Collected Works’, viewed 29 March 2022, <http://graveneymarsh.blogspot.com/2011/01/collected-works.html>
  18. Mulvaney, J, 1994, The wisdom of ‘non-relevance’: the humanities and Australia’s cultural heritage, Friends of the National Library of Australia, Canberra, ACT, p 2
  19. Duggan, L, 2011, ‘Collected Works’, viewed 29 March 2022, <http://graveneymarsh.blogspot.com/2011/01/collected-works.html>
  20. As above
  21. Hemensley, K, 2022, personal communication (21 February)
  22. The Encyclopédie appeared in Paris in the late 18th century. I have quoted from its entry on ‘Bookstore’, which is included as an epigram in Nancy, Jean-Luc, 2009, On the Commerce of Thinking: Of Books and Bookstores, (D Wills, Trans), Fordham University Press, New York, p vii
  23. Shils, E, 1963, ‘The bookshop in America’, in Smith, RH (Ed), 1963, The American reading public: what it reads, why it reads, RR Bowker, New York, p 139
  24. Hemensley, K, 2017, ‘Go for it, Joe!’, Quadrant, vol 61, no 4, p 105
  25. Hemensley, K, 2022, ‘Loretta and me and poetry makes three’, Unusual work, no 32, p 19
  26. Weschke, L, 2016, ‘Introduction’ in Hemensely, K, 2016, Your Scratch Entourage, Cordite Books, Carlton South, p xi

This article has 12 comments

  1. Wonderful hommage to the bookshop and to Loretta Hemensley. Congratulations to Walter Struve for his beautifully researched and comprehensive article. And the photographs are superb.

  2. Thank you for this warm and lovely tribute to Collected Works and those at the heart of this bookshop. It was wonderful to read of the history and memories treasured by so many; how lucky Melbourne was to have this gem for so long. Vale Loretta, and with thanks to her, to Kris, and to Walter Struve for this record of what was.

  3. Peter Lyssiotis

    Why Kris Hemensley and why Collected Works? It’s easy. Kris is a terrific writer, publisher and along with Retta embodied the independent spirit of Collected Works.
    When I buy a book I like to imagine the person selling me the book is a reader – and what a bonus it is if they’ve read the book I’d chosen. Well, there was always that possibility and as for being a reader, Kris and Retta read wide and discriminatively.
    Each time I went to Collected Works I ‘discovered’ something. Sure, I went with something in mind, and inevitably left with an armful of ‘discoveries’.
    I’ll admit straight out that I’ve only dared to dip a single toe into the Digital Swamp that surrounds us (in fact this piece was drafted with a pencil, a Staedler tradition HB, made in Germany). Collected Works resisted the Digital Swamp and kept whatever was needed to operate a bookshop in their heads, though handwritten receipts were part of the end of one’s journey there.
    Collected Works – Kris and Retta, from Smith Street to Flinders Street to Swanston Street to Westgarth – always gave one an invitation to relax, snoop and be part of the furniture: no, to be part of a family.

  4. I often thought it should have been called Sanctuary for that is what it was.

  5. Monica Raszewski

    What a joy to read this great article. Of course it got me remembering the first time I tentatively entered Collected Works and left with books of poetry by poets I’d never heard of. It was a wild and wonderful experience.

  6. A truly wonderful essay, a tribute to Kris and Retta and poetry and their shop and everyone who visited Collected Works. There was also a button shop in the Nicholas Building and I’d always return from Melbourne with a small treasure of buttons and books. Books that you didn’t find anywhere else. So why can’t there be another shop like it “slap-bang in the centre of the city”? Any city, or town, anywhere? Places for poetry and ideas?

  7. Dear Kris, when you were about to dismantle the shop, it was as if I walked into a home being sold. As if, even, the shelves could hardly bear to part with their occupants. In the years before that it was a magical place to go, to drift in, to be filled with wonder. To be greeted as an old friend. So: Vale Loretta. And thank you Kris for your work, and Walter for the evocative article.

  8. I enjoyed your article very much and was saddened to hear about Loretta. I am the lady that had the button shop in the Nicholas Building on the 2nd floor. I still have my copy of Robbie Burns poems that I bought from Kris and Loretta that has a special place in my bookshelf.
    They were such a wonderful duo that had time for everyone

    • Kris Hemensley

      Hello Kate, a star yourself in the amazing Nicholas Building environment that was! Thank you for your memory of the shop and kind thought about Loretta. Interesting to me how these worlds intersect. I think Walter would love the intersections, how they map the city. Best wishes, Kris

  9. Such a warm and evocative piece. Thank you.

  10. I would always make a beeline to Collected Works when in Melbourne, not only because it was like visiting Aladdin’s cave, but to be reminded of Kris’s distinctive melancholy (which I think he attributed to his Egyptian background) and which now seems more and more appropriate to the business of poetry in this country.

  11. Thank you, Walter, for your wonderful words about a magical place, sadly no longer part of the writers and readers’ world.

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