The death of a bookshop: a tribute to Melbourne’s Kill City Books

KC 4

I love poking around in second-hand bookshops. The more disorganised and dishevelled, the better. I can’t remember the last time I found one with a curtained off section where they stashed the adult stuff, the pulp fiction and true crime, but those ones were best of all.

It’s always sad to hear about the closure of a second handbook shop and they’ve been closing with alarming frequency in Melbourne over the last few years.

The latest casualty is Flinders Books, which had operated out of the basement at 119 Swanston Street, for 18 years. Before that it had reportedly been a trading card shop, and going back even further, a rest and recreation area for military personnel after World War II.

Basement Books, located at 342 Flinders Street is, as far as I know, the last second-hand bookshop in the Melbourne CBD.

The reasons behind the closure are nothing new: changing book buying habits, including the rise of e-books, coupled with a massive rent increase, all of which, according to the owner, made the business impossible to sustain at its current location.

As if the end of a good second-hand bookstore is not sad enough, the passing of Flinders Books has a wider historical significance. For the last eight years of its existence it also hosted the remnants of Kill City Books, once Melbourne’s premier bookshop specialising in crime fiction and true crime.

The owner of Flinders Books was walking past Kill City Books with her father sometime in 2005. The then owner had decided to close the business. They had a coffee with him and ended up striking an agreement to purchase the remaining stock and use the logo.

It may not have been much but it meant Flinders Books always had a good stock of second hand crime, including some great hard to get pulp fiction, and it kept the memory alive.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Peter Lawrance and Bruce Milne started Kill City Books in the early nineties. It operated out of a two-storey building in Greville Street, Prahran, waaaay back when Prahran was still a hub of Melbourne counter-culture and the rents were much cheaper.

“Both Bruce and I were reading a lot of crime, we loved it and couldn’t get a lot of what we wanted in Melbourne, so we decided to start the shop,” recalls Lawrance. Around the same time there were two other bookshops that specialised in crime, one in Hawthorn and a place called Black Ink Books in South Yarra. Neither survived the nineties.

Philip Brophy (an experimental musician, film maker and pop culture commentator) designed the iconic Kill City Books logo, which was still on display at the entrance to Flinders Street Books.

It was a heady time for local crime fiction aficionados. The Ned Kelly crime writing awards, or ‘the Neddies’ as they are now affectionately known, had just started (Lawrance is still actively involved behind the scenes) and Kill City Books was a hub for local and international crime fiction names. James Ellroy and Kinky Friedman both did readings in the shop. The first of the Underbelly books written by John Silvester and Andrew Rule was launched on the premises, as were the tomes of many local writers.

Kinky Friedman with the owners of Kill City Books.

US crime writer Kinky Friedman at Kill City Books, with Bruce Milne (left), Sally Van Es, Peter Lawrance (right) 

Iggy Pop dropped in. Notorious figures in Melbourne underworld scene would come to buy true crime books and complain about their treatment in the media or in the latest true crime release. Sometimes they would bring their bodyguards. Often they would demand a discount.

“It was that kind of placed,” says Lawrance. “Even though it was in a tiny space it was a destination. The airline magazines listed it as a must see place.”

I frequented the shop during this time. It introduced me to Himes, Bunker, Ellroy and Willeford, amongst others. I remember doing an assignment on Kill City Books as part of a journalism graduate diploma at RMIT in the early nineties. I had to write a feature article and interviewed one of the owners. The assignment scraped through with a bare pass, I suspect largely because the lecturer concerned did not approve of my taste in subject matter.

Making the business profitable was never easy, according to Lawrance, especially after a large Borders store appeared in Chapel Street sometime in early 1999. Deep in debt, Lawrance and Milne sold Kill City Books soon after to a bookseller from the UK named Phillip Bardiger.

Bardiger was a mysterious figure. He had worked in the antiquarian book trade in the UK and owned other bookshops. He had deep pockets. He moved the business to Chapel Street and expanded the range of books available.

David Honeybone started working at Kill City Books just before the business was sold to Bardiger. “I was really into crime and just rocked up there and started talking to Peter [Lawrance]. “Not sure I was looking for a job but ended up working Sundays and Wednesdays when it was taken over.”

He remembers that shoplifting was a major problem, especially in the true crime section. There was also the occasion when a now well-know crime writer walked into the shop and decided to re-arrange the front window display because she felt her books were not prominent enough.

CFHoneybone was working in Kill City Books in 2001 when he started the hard copy magazine, Crime Factory. Honeybone came up with the name while scanning the shelves one day and noticed the Factory series by British noir author, Derek Raymond.

Crime Factory contained articles, reviews and interviews about all things crime fiction related and was influential far beyond Australia. Nine issues of the magazine appeared before Honeybone called it quits in 2003.

It was also while Honeybone was working in Kill City Books, that he met Cameron Ashley, who along with Liam Jose resuscitated Crime Factory as an on-line journal in January 2010. Thirteen issues of the magazine have so far appeared. Ashley, Jose and myself subsequently started Australia’s sole crime only publisher, Crime Factory Publications.

The owner of Flinders Books hopes to re-open, including the Kill City Books part of the business, “at some point in the future… at some location in the city”.

One can only wish her luck.

If readers have any memories or additional information they’d care to share about Kill City Books please leave a comment, I’d love to hear from you.

16 Responses

  1. Vale Kill City.
    Was first there 20yrs ago, entering a very different world to a quiet suburban life. You led me into a strange world.
    Haven’t been for a decade or more… life takes you to other places.

    Loved (loved!) my old Kill City black t-shirt with red and white print.

    Melbourne will be different without you.

    • Yes, the feeling you got, coming from the suburbs and going into a place like Kill City, I remember it well. I had the same sensation when I first started going to Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, in the late eighties.

  2. I loved that place. I bought the Satanic Bible from there and had my tarot read next door and got my nose pierced further up (the road). I miss the nineties. :(

  3. Andrew Prentice

    I bought Robert Leninger’s “Killing Suki Flood” from Kill City in 2001 when I was in Melbourne for a World Cup qualifying match. Hands down the best crime bookstore I’ve been in, and I just loaded up on infrequent trips to Melbourne. Discoveries like Doug J Swanson, Kenneth Abel, Daniel Woodrell, Vicky Hendricks and Jason Starr all came from Kill City. A real shame it has gone.

  4. Anthony Morris

    If you’re after second-hand books in the CBD, Basement Books is still operating on Flinders Street (across from the station, down the Banana Alley end). Plus there’s the high-end second-hand book store on Collins Street up from the Town Hall (Kay Craddock’s?)

    But yes, the number of 2nd hand bookstores has been dropping off alarmingly, both in the CBD and elsewhere. Flinders Books is a real loss.

    • The owner of Flinders Books/Kill City actually had another shop close not so long ago, just opposite Flinders Street Station, so losing this one as well must be tough. I wish her the best of luck finding new premises. I wasn’t aware until very recently that Basement Books had re-opened in a new location.

  5. I think the specialist crime bookshop in Hawthorn was called Murder Inc.
    I loved Kill City in Prahran and bought heaps of books from there in the late 1990s. When I left Lonely Planet in 2002, they gave me a Kill City voucher.
    A couple of second-hand bookshops have closed here in the Dandenongs too – the specialist Vintage Cookbooks and Wormhole Books. Sad.

  6. Murder Ink / Inc in Auburn Road Hawthorn was a marvellous place – just up the road from the Auburn Hotel which is now the Geebung or something or other I think.

    Tiny little shop with a huge collection of all sorts of crime fiction. Happened to move in around the corner just after arriving in Melbourne and promptly nearly bankrupted myself there. Thought I’d died and gone to heaven as you could get off the train at Auburn Station, belt around the corner and buy a new book for tomorrow’s train journey, head for the pub and then walk home :).

    The owner whose name I have now shamefully forgotten was extremely knowledgeable and really helped me track down some gems which I’ve still got to this day.

  7. Gone the Kill City,Gone my melbourne venture.Just relocated to Sydney with two bookshelves generously given by Hilda.Three and a half years in Melbourne with hundreds of true crime and mafia titles collected from here,Kill City is going to live in my memory for the rest of my life.

  8. Frank,
    Cheers made, Lovely comment. Thanks for stopping by.
    Andrew

    • Hi Andrew,i want to send you a photo,which is about two bookshelves i put together with shelves i got from Kill City before it closed down.can u pls email me ur address?Thanks

  9. Vale Kill City. Each time I’d visit Melbourne I’d make appoint out visiting the store and buying stock. A damned shame that it’s now gone. I’m gonna miss the store and the atmosphere.

  10. Hi Andrew, just before the store closed I left my details with the owners. She mentioned that she was hoping to reopen at some point provided that she could find suitable premises.
    Do you know if she has & where she may be located?

  11. The owner of Murder Ink in Auburn Rd was Malcolm Campbell. If anyone knows what happened to this knowledgable and lovely man I would be very grateful for any info.

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