Lockdown recollections of the outside world and the wonder of Space Age Books

The shopfront of Space Age Books, 317 Swanston Street, Melbourne, in the early 1980s

I was saddened over the Eastern weekend to hear of the death of Mervyn ‘Merv’ Binns on April 7, at the age of 85. Binns was a major participant in Melbourne science fiction fandom going back to its earliest days in the 1950s, and established Space Age Books, Australia’s first specialist science fiction bookshop, and a frequent bolt hole for myself and no doubt so many other teenagers, desperate to escape the boredom of long suburban weekends in the 1970s and 1980s.

I only met Binns once, but his passing feels particular poignant given the circumstances we currently find ourselves in, unable to leave our houses and take part in Melbourne’s physical public culture, a field in which Binns once played a small but important role, to go to the pub with friends, browse in a bookshop or go to the cinema or film club screening.

But more than this, memories of Space Age Books briefly made concrete my fears about one of the unintended consequences of the (very necessary) restrictions evoked to combat the Covid-19 virus – its potential impact on the few remaining cultural holdouts that make living in Melbourne feel special compared to a lot of other places: bookshops, including the second-hand and antiquarian bookshops, independent cinemas and cinema clubs, record stores, and other speciality businesses that deal in material cultural items and experiences and, just as importantly, provide a space to engage in face to face discussion about them.

These spaces, financially precarious at the best of times due to the relatively narrow gauge and small size of Australia’s cultural economy, were under pressure well before the Covid-19 crisis, due to factors such as skyrocketing rents and the move to online consumption (which, if anything, will intensify as a result of what is currently happening). Among the many, many things that worry me about the aftereffect of Covid-19, is that it will administer the final coup de gra to many of these, leaving us with an even more culturally homogenous city than we already have.

I have been chronicling the steady drumbeat of the closures of these types of businesses in Melbourne, on this site and my various social media feeds, for some time now. It is always a delicate balancing act, acknowledging my Gen X nostalgia while not wallowing too much in it, and marking the closure of bookshops, DVD rental stores, and other businesses that are personally important to me and may have had an important role in the culture, while recognising that cities are never static, that they have always been changing and will continue to do so, and that this is not always a bad thing.

And while I am loath to embark on yet another of these posts, some recognition of the passing of Binns and the importance of Space Age Books seems fitting.

Binns with crime, horror and science fiction author, Robert Bloch, sometime in the 1970s.

Born in 1934, Binns worked behind the counter at the now defunct McGill’s Newsagency as a teenager in the 1950s. McGill’s used to be located on the corner of Elizabeth and Bourke street in Melbourne’s CBD and was another place I often frequented in my youth. It occupied a huge space that seemed to offer every magazine and newspaper imaginable, including a wide selection of overseas and foreign language newspapers, which always struck me as particularly unusual and exotic. In its early days in the 1950s, McGill’s was also one of the few sources of science fiction books and magazines in Melbourne and it was while working there that Binns conceived of the idea to start what would become Space Age Books.

Binns founded Space Age Books in the very early 1970s. It moved several times, originally occupying a space on the 7th floor of the Beehive Building at 96 Elizabeth Street, then shifting to a storefront on Swanston Street opposite the State Library of Victoria, then to another location a short distance away, which I suspect is when I would have first visited. This section of Swanston Street appears to have been demolished and replaced with accommodation for what was until the Convid-19 outbreak, Melbourne’s booming overseas student market.

Part of Space Age’s success came from its connection to living science fiction and fantasy fandom. It was a hub for fans and any science fiction writer passing through town stopped in. Melbourne science fiction author, Lee Harding, who worked at Space Age, told me in an interview I did with him several years ago, “We had a dream run… We had a book-educated clientele and were on the student run from Melbourne University and RMIT,” he said. “Merv achieved something marvelous with Space Age, it was the right bookshop at the right time and one of the city’s counter-cultural meccas.”

Space Age Books was often an escape from long weekend days in the suburbs. I’d take the train into the city and spend many a Saturday or Sunday afternoon in the shop. The beauty of Space Age Books was that it didn’t just feature science fictions books, but comics, fanzines, movie posters and all sorts of pop culture paraphernalia. As an early teen, I didn’t have much money, but I’d always find something cheap to buy, maybe an issue of the Fabulous Furry freak Brothers comic, which I was into in a big way at the time, or a fanzine about science fiction movies. And no one ever seemed to mind you just hanging around without purchasing anything.

The post about Space Age on the Fancyclopedia site quotes a passage from Philip Bentley’s A Life in Comics: A personal history of comics in Australia 1960-1990, describing the shop layout: ‘There were SF books to the left, counter-culture books to the right, and comics at the rear.’ The shop particularly specialised in film books and, according to a 1975 newspaper account, at one stage boasted some 328 titles about movies alone. I seem to recall it even had a small rack at which one could buy the newspapers and other publications produced by Melbourne’s various Marxist parties and grouplets (communist politics being another interest of mine at the time).

As I said earlier, I only ever met Binns once. I contacted him in late 2013 about a individual I was researching, a former American citizen called Ron Smith. Smith was another participant of local science fiction fandom, but his fingerprints can be found on other aspects of Australian culture from the early 1960s, when he first arrived in Sydney to escape what he saw as the looming threat of nuclear war as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He worked for risqué men’s magazines, was an editor at Horwitz Publications, one of Australia’s main post war pulp publishers. And he tried and failed to start his own line of erotic books, before starting a bookstore specialising in alternative therapies and health called Open Leaves Bookshop, which at one time was situated near St Kilda Road Junction.

But that is a story for another post.

Given his deep involvement in science fiction fandom I thought Binns might be able to shed some light on Smith. He did indeed provide me with a few details about Smith via email but begged off meeting in person, eventually agreeing to do so only after considerable prompting by myself (those old journalistic habits die hard). I visited Binns and his partner, Helena Roberts, at their home, where he was recovering from surgery for the heart problem that would eventually claim his life. He didn’t have much more to say about Smith, but we did talk about Space Age Books and the history of science fiction fandom, a subject that if he had not been unwell, I got the feeling he could have easily talked to me about for hours.

Rather than attempting to paraphrase his words, below is an excerpt from that interview, mainly covering the history of Space Age Books.

The inside of Space Age Books in 1975

When did Space Age open?

Nineteen seventy one, well 1970 -1971, around about that time. We actually used to have an office in the Elizabeth Street in the Beehive Building, just down from the corner of Collins and Elizabeth Street. We had a room in that to sort out a lot of magazines and such. We were only there for a few months, when one of my customers, probably from McGills or connected to the Melbourne Science Fiction Club at the time, came and told me there was an empty shop opposite the public library. I checked up and found it was available. We were there for three years and then we moved to a larger shop in the fourth year. We were there for the rest of the time, fifteen years altogether.

Had you worked in the book trade previously?

I worked for twenty years for McGills. I was speaking to a friend from Sydney, Ron Graham who was a very successful engineer and had a big business and had tons of money. He was also the biggest collector of science fiction books in Australia. At any rate, one day when I was talking to him, I said I was fed up with working for McGills and I’d like to have a shop of my own. He said, “Well, I think we can do something about that.” He put the money up for me to start the business and that was that.

What made you want to start your own shop?

That’s a very complex question. First of all, I was interested in selling science fiction. I built up the trade in science fiction at McGills, of course. I was getting books for the people in the Melbourne Science Fiction Club, which by that time was situated in the upper level of the McGills Store on Elizabeth Street. I suppose a conflict of interest of sorts was created, with trying to run the Club and get books for the Club and working for McGills. I felt it would be a lot better if I could just have my own shop, handling science fiction. So, when the opportunity came along to do that, I took it. It was a load off my mind, really. It was a lot easier to have my own shop and do what I wanted to do.

You were the owner?

Well, in partnership with Ron Graham, the Sydney guy. He died in 1978, I think. Which led to the collapse of the business. I wasn’t a good businessman, there was no doubt about that. I knew about books and science fiction. But when it came to handling money and working out how to run a business, I was wasn’t very good. When Ron died and the business was not doing well, Ron’s people looking after his finances, said I should close up. The business was costing us more money to run than we were making out of it.

I loved the shop and it always seemed to quite crowded when I was in there, so you had a lot of customers.

Oh yes, we had a lot of customers, but it just wasn’t big enough. For the amount of rent we were paying for the place, staff costs, it was more than what we were getting in. That’s something I realise now, but I did not realise how bad it was at the time. So, eventually, we had to give it away.

For a while there, it was a real hub, wasn’t it?

The thing is Space Age was an extension of science fiction fandom. The little shop we had, the first one, back towards little Lonsdale, it was that small, trying to get all the customers in was impossible. It was there when the plans for the World Science Fiction Convention were taking place. They’d been running since 1938/39, stopped during the war, but started again afterwards. You usually had to bid about three years ahead. Space Age was starting at the same time this bid for the convention got rolling. It all became part of the thing. Space Age Books became the centre of communication between people involved in the bid. One thing came to another and finally, 1973 was the year we actually got the bid for the convention in 1975. It was a big deal at the time. We made a movie to publicise the bid for the World Convention. There are one or two shots in that film of the old shop. Then we moved to the larger space, by which time the Convention had been run.

The interesting thing I always remembered about Space Age is not only did it have a great selection of science fiction books, but it also had a lot of more general counter cultural stuff. Did you ever go to a book shop called Source? Have you heard of it?

There were a couple of guys who were involved in this shop. They were involved with a rock music group or something, I can’t remember what it was. I think one of them appeared in the stage version of Hair. They had this shop in a laneway, running off between Collins Street and Flinders Lane. My friend, Lee Harding, an author and science fiction fan, who worked for me at Space Age, used to frequent them, saw what sort of books they were handling, and he got information from people and eventually came up with this idea of stocking all this counter culture literature. That went well for a while, but as far as I was concerned, science fiction was the main thing, that and films. Being a movie fan, I decided that we had to have every science fiction movie book that was published. We supplied movie books to the State Film Centre as it was called at the time, which is now ACMI.

These days, you get used to the instantaneous nature of being able to access culture. I can wake up in the morning, have a conversation with someone about a certain movie and if I want, I can just jump on-line and buy it like that. Back when you had this shop, this would not have been possible.

As far as the science fiction people were concerned, there was two or three levels of fandom. I was running the Melbourne Science Fiction Club, which was pretty well in name only. We weren’t getting too many people coming to meetings unless we put on movie shows. When we put on movie shows we would get quite a few people. But away from the Club, there was a whole group of people in correspondence and connection with each other. They got together and formed something called The Nova Mob, which is still going. They were more interested in the serious side of things than I was. But I kept the Science Fiction Club going, it was like, how can I describe it? Like a football club that didn’t have any members. What I’m trying to say was that there was a lot of people away from the Club who were on contact with one another, this was before computers and the Internet. They were doing Fanzines and they sent these to one another.

But Space Age was still the place where they could get in touch with one another and they still used to come to our movie nights and parties. We had some fantastic parties in the shop. I used to get far more people coming to the parties than came to meetings of the Melbourne Science Fiction Club.

Did you ever have any famous science fiction writers come to the shop?

Of course, any writers that came to Melbourne that were here for conventions or whatever, we would get them into the shop to sign books. The most significant one was Doris Lessing. She’d written science fiction. During the conventions all the authors would be there. Everybody was there. In the long run, I got to meet everybody who was anybody in the science fiction field, through the shop. The only one I didn’t meet directly was Isaac Asimov, but I was in a group of people talking to him, like I’m talking to you now. I met lots of others. I remember Robert Bloch, he was a fan as much as an author, he used to do fanzines and all. Joe Haldeman was another.

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One Response

  1. David N. Pepperell

    I too mourn the passing of Merv Binns as I mourned Space Age Books when, riddled with debt, it finally closed. It was a great hangout like my shop, Source Books, The In Shop, Surf/Dive/Ski and some others in the frenzy that was Melbourne ion the 1970s. I am saddened, although not surprised, that Merv took all the credit for the shop for himself not mentioning the massive contribution that Paul Stevens, sci-fi fan extraordinaire and comic maniac, made to the business. I had known Merv since being a member of the Science Fiction Club and via McGills where I went almost every day to check for music magazines in that stupendous range they had and knew him for a difficult, moody kind of guy. Space Age’s failure had much to do with his depressed nature which Paul tried to make up for with his eccentric, phantasmagorical personality. Where Merv was mostly down Paul was always up. I too worry about the magical retail scene in Melbourne but fear it has mostly disappeared now from the extraordinary heights of the 1960’s and 1970s, when it was like going to a parallel universe when you visited The City, but that of course is consistent with the general destruction of hip Melbourne to be replaced with bars, with no entertainment, charging fortunes for a drink and the amazing sight of people queuing up to get into them! Like Richard Clapton I wish everything was back the way it used to be before although I know that is not possible. Thank you for an obit for Merv – he didn’t seem to rate much of a mention anywhere else for his many achievements. I guess shops don’t count for much these days.

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