There’s only one thing to say when it comes to PolyEster and that is exactly what it says on the tin — or on the sign up there — totally weird shit. In fact, Frank Zappa says it best:
Polyester Books is full of perverts, throw-backs and degenerate gamblers… this well appointed book store provides a home-away-home for the connoisseurs of fine publishing
This store is the very definition of alternative and it practically demands that you go in and take a look around. I talked to Jo, one half of the new owners of the store and she told me a little bit more about this little bit of alternative Melbourne.
Describe your store to readers who’ve never heard of it?
Polyester is a small, independent bookshop located in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. Our range of titles steer well clear of the mainstream and cater specifically to those on the fringes of society. We have well-stocked sections on Lowbrow Art, Tattoo and Graffiti Art, Music, Politics, The Occult, Drugs & Psychedelia and Erotica. Our aim is to provide literature that captures people’s imagination and opens their mind.
Describe our customers on any given day?
Our customers come from all walks of life – locals and visitors, young and old, rich and poor.
The shop itself can be a little overwhelming for first-timers – it’s very colourful and decorative. Actually it seems to appeal to young kids especially – unfortunately their shell-shocked parents normally drag the kids out as soon as they glance around at our product range. However, we are far from being an “adults only” bookstore. Our young son has grown up around the shop and I don’t have any problem with him reading any of our titles.
What attracted you to buying the store?
It was a place that didn’t conform at all to the standard expectation of a bookshop business. It allowed us the freedom to stock titles that we really believe in and want people to read. The range at Polyester was always in keeping with our own philosophy and outlook on life.
Can you tell us a little about the history of the store? I know you’re not the first owners, so I’d be grateful for anything you can share.
The original owner, Paul Elliot started out with a record shop called Dizzy Spinners about 30-odd years ago. He added a few books from his own personal stash and they really took off so he spilt the shop in two. The record shop was moved down the street, Polyester Books and Polyester Records were born. Paul always held a strong anti-censorship stance and as a result copped some unwelcome reactions, from police raids to having the shop window smashed in. We took over about 4 years ago and thankfully haven’t had too many issues (so far).
The area was once very much a mecca for artists, live music enthusiasts and free spirits in general. When Polyester first opened, Brunswick Street was full of factories and car mechanics and was a less-than-desirable part of town. Once the cultural upsurge was underway throughout the 90’s, the area really took off, but with that came rising property prices, rising rents – and the inevitable “gentrification”. Many of the old live music venues have closed down or are in the process of being harassed out of existence by whining yuppie residents and the all-too-complicit local council. Small, independent retailers have been pushed out by rising rents, their places being taken over by franchises or other more established businesses. Put simply, the area has become a victim of it’s own success. Having said that though, there are still plenty of great restaurants and cafes as well as long-time stalwarts along the strip that remain true to the old spirit of the area, including us!
From what I’ve read, Polyester has had its share of run-ins with the law – can you tell us a little about that? I know that’s a very broad question – could you perhaps tell us a little about one incident?
The main legal problem came in about ‘97 when the shop was raided by police and various items of stock were seized. Paul also copped a hefty fine so it was a pretty damaging episode. He responded however by using the publicity to his advantage and got a lot of support from people who sympathised with his plight.
How has the store – or how have you, being new owners, dealt with any community objections to the store?
We had a problem a few years back when the local council refused to issue us a permit for our sandwich-board sign (that it had gladly issued a permit for each of the previous 15 years), on the grounds that is was “offensive”. After I got nowhere trying to reason with the idiot from the council, our customers showed their support by signing a petition which I then presented to the council and in the end we were issued our permit and have had no trouble since.
We also had a ruling by the Advertising Standards Board regarding the same sign that basically demanded we remove it, based on a single complaint from some obviously aggrieved individual. After assessing our options with respect to our legal obligations to this demand, we simply refused to comply. For every one person who complains I will easily find 100 people who love the sign. Democracy has spoken.
Frank Zappa has been a visitor to the store – have you had any other famous or infamous customers?
We’ve had a few well-known musicians, such as Jon Bon Jovi, James Hetfield, Keith Morris and J Mascis to name a few. We once had poet John Cooper Clarke pop in, US musician Tav Falco came in and did a reading, local comedian/author John Safran signed some books and we’ve had a bunch of great local poets come in and perform in-store as well. There’s probably plenty more who I’ll remember 10 minutes after sending these responses through….
What is the “weirdest shit” you’ve had in the store?
I still reckon the semen cookbook is pretty weird, as is the accompanying semen bartenders guide (although some of the drinks do look pretty good). Some of my other favourites include: “How to Make Your Own Submachine Gun”, “Championship Streetfighting” and “Technological Slavery”, aka “The Unabomber Manifesto”.