It had always been a bright dream of mine in my backpacking years as I trawled through Vienneese coffee houses, Moroccan tearooms and Turkish antiquarian bookshops, I wanted to combine my two great loves – good food and good books. To create a space where people would feel at home, nurtured, inspired. So when I met Jane Turner in 1998 behind a row of rickety bookshelves (she and I both covered in a fine layer of dust, with piles of condemned volumes around us) it seemed I had met the Alice to my Gertrude: my muse, my co-founder, my friend. And so it began…
We were both inspired by the culture of literature of Paris in the twenties and thirties, the writers and artists who flocked to Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas’ salon in their apartment at the Rue de Fleurus. We began brainstorming possible names for our cafe bookstore and wanted to feature an odd, interesting couple of the era. Until we decided upon the trailblazing eccentric pair, Gertrude and Alice, we sounded out Sylvia and Ted (too tragic), Henry and June (too plicated as it should have been Henry, June and Anais), Frida and Diego (wrong art form) or Dylan and Caitlin (too sozzled). We needed lovers of words, not just tortured lovers! And Gertrude & Alice adored writing and reading as much as we did – if not more!
We started reading through the era; falling in love with strong literary voices of expatriates like Ernest Hemingway, Paul Bowls and Henry Miler, fascinated by their accounts of lvoers and enemies; immersing ourselves in Anais Bin and Tennessee Williams, in rising stars such as Picasso and Duchamp and Braque. Cubism. Surrealism. Sparse, lean prose. Gertrude’s pithy literary judgements and Alice’s remarkable food – such as her infamous hashish fudge and her Gigot de le Clinique, which involved taking a large hypodermic needle and injecting a leg of lamb twice a day for one week with orange juice a it sat in a marinade of wine and herbs.
We were delighted by bookshops like Shakespear and pic any, where those in each of soul-food could find whatever they thought they were looking for. We wanted to be like Sylvia Beach, the grand proprietor who published James Joyce’s Ulysses when nobody else would.
We stockpiled 40,000 second-hand books in both our houses, even hosting birthday parties in my tiny terrace in Glebe, where candle-wax dripped onto Cartier Gresson limited editions and antipasto platters dropped their juices on our favoured authors faces. We kept filling our houses wiht more and more books as we waited for the perfect premises to materialised, and waited, and waited, until our corridors were impassable unless you sucked your stomach in and held your breath. Until can tables and chairs fought for space with porcelain sugar pourers and plates, until even our bathrooms were wallpapers with books.
The rustling of cockroaches among all that paper kept us awake at night. We priced and cleaned books with ferocity, all day festivals of Windex and eurcalpyptus oil and erasers. We planned our menus – Greek and Middle Eastern influenced. We chose warm colours and designs for walls and windows and counters. We co-opted my faded red velvet couch, straight out of a seventeenth-century brothel. We wanted hue communal tables, armchairs and private rooms for serious readers. We were ready. And we still waited, now losing hope. It had been nine months and the baby wasn’t even showing a sign. Then we found an old surf shop on Hall Street, Bondi. And we knew we would do anything to get this place.
There were snags along the way, of course. Yet we renovated in under six weeks, with hardly any money, using the labour of family and friends who will never work for us ever again! We knocked out walls, installed plumbing, wired new lights. Every evening we staggered to our respective homes, showered the grime off, and fell asleep on our feet. When we blew our noses, the black dust we had been playing with all day poured out. We lived on green grapes and hot cross buns. We both caught colds. Slowly, the tasks became easier. We painted and polished concrete floors, hung our signs and began unpacking and categorising our beloved books.
On a day filled with flowers and tears and fervent wishes, we opened our shop to the people of Bondi Beach, who picked politely over the rubble that hadn’t yet been carted away, and bought their books. And kept buying them, and thanking us for reading this special space, and quickly became regulars, friends, and family to us.
Only nine months after opening, Katerina decided it was time to write full-time. Her first novel – The Glass Heart had been published by HarperCollins only the year before and was selling well. This was her first love, her passion – writing was her drug of choice while mine remained the pleasures of coffee and dusty books.
How was I going to stay on and run Gertrude & Alice without her? I knew nothing about serving food or running a cafe. I couldn’t make coffee (and still can’t to this day) and was relatively new at the second-hand book scene and yet I felt I had to find a way to keep going as it felt much too soon to let go of the baby. I wanted to know why our concept had been so well-received in Bondi. I wanted to know why the unique mixture of books and coffee and lounged and the intimate ambience we created had worked so well. We had been one of the first o integrate food and books in such an eclectic way – with no demarcation between the two. The customers could take their plates with them and sit down with any book in the shop – we weren’t worried about coffee spills! So I borrowed money from my family and made the brace decision to soldier on.
I was lucky to have loyal, special staff and friends, who took the leap with me and my family – and so Gertrude and Alice soon became a Bondi icon, so entrenched in the local community that it felt like Hotel California – we can check out anytime we like but we can never leave – or so we were told by our customers anyway…
Our local customer base expanded and celebrities flocked to the private Hemingway room, never mentioned it as their favourite place to hang out for fear that their down-time would be picromised by fighting for a space to sit. We felt unique and appreciated and the constant stream of customers, both old and new encouraged us with their timely words of praise and inspiration for what we had created.
The shop became a melting pot of creativity. Books, poems and plays were written and re-written amongst the everyday chaos of banging pots and pans, rattling plates and noisy coffee grinders. The sound of the steaming wand frothing the soy milk for our homemade chai became music to our ears. We served banana bread dripping with fresh ricotta and honey and acfe au last across lap-tops while deals were closed over mobile phones.
We had local music nights every Wednesday where you could scarcely find a place to sit (or stand) – helping MUsos like Brett Hunt and Ilan Kidron from Glass develop a local following for their music. The shop was used for films, commercials, and photo shoots, meetings and book-club lunches and dinners, providing the perfect backdrop for whatever was needed at the time…
Like any “family” we experienced our own births, deaths and marriage scenarios.
Births were announced first at the shop (when women made the switch to decaf – even before telling their partners). Women in labour called in on the way to the hospital for their last shot of coffee before giving birth, newborn babies were shown off in their prams to the clucky women behind the counter. The new generation of G&A babies grew quickly and soon had their very first babycinos propped up against stacks of books. The Christensen children have all been “shop babies” – Honey, TIgerlily, Taj and Tex along with their Parents Shane and Joanna. Then there is Ella and Tariq who have been enjoying our shop since they were babies with their Mum, Jo. We miss our weekly reading sessions with the children as they are not at school and reading for themselves. Yet we like to think that we contributed to their love of reading in some small way.
There are always babies at G&A and one day we had seven prams parked outside the shop. Dan, our clucky barista is ag great favourite with the babies whose faces light up when they see him – he makes them belly laugh! We welcome Sophie, Imogen, Barnaby, and Remi – to name a few – as being part of the new generation of G&A babies and toddlers.
Sadly however, the deaths were harder. Each having touched us in different ways. I sadly lost my father in 2001, and the shop provided a healing space for my grief. He was really proud of what Katerina and I had created. Customers brought me rose quarts crystals and flowers – letting me know I wasn’t alone in my loss.
Losing Sunia was hard on all of us. She was too young to be that sick and we miss her beautiful smile. Her parents, her brothers and friends became part of our family and the shop provided space when they needed time out and sustenance when they needed it most. Were given a CD of her favourite songs and we play them often and so a part of her spirit lives on in the shop that she found so special.
And so to the relationships, the shop has long been a meeting place for first dates and new relationships and extended through to the establishment and maintenance of old ones. G&A provides a comfortable space for people to get to know each other snuggled up in the comfy velvet lounges over a soy chai (home-made with Alice’s special secret spices). The search for picatibility over favourite books and authors is always a good place to start.
We even hosted a Tuscan wedding for eighty-five people. Andy and Vashti were married beneath the open aisle window and we celebrated with a feast after the ceremony. Heidi’s magnificent arrangement of flowers filled the shop with every colour imaginable and their perfume lingered for days amongst the dusty books. The Guinness-glaxed leg of ham, fresh figs, mounds of fresh fruit with overflowing bowls of cherries, huge wheels of parmesan cheese and crusty loaves provided nourishment for all and it was a special night to be remembered.
One of the hardest times at G&A was when our landlord decided to re-develop the building at 40 Hall Street and we had to find a new home. For a while there was we searched for a new shop, being able to stay in Bondi Beach wasn’t looking too promising.
However, in December 2006 we found a new shop at 46 Hall Street, only 3 doors away from where were and on 11th of February, 2007 we re-opened at our new (if a little smaller) home.
It took a while for us all to adjust to being in the new space. Being right at the front of the shop was very different to where we were before. We were all on top of each other in a small confined space and that took some adjustment. However, the new move bought about positive changes to the business. We now had a takeaway coffee business that was thriving under Dan, our barista (but we also had take away food that we had never done before). Our new kitchen couldn’t make our famous Mezze Plate and favourite lasagnes that our customers were used to. There had to be picromise. Some customers shook their heads with despair and others congratulated us on being able to recreate the ambience that we had previously. Slowly the customers who weren’t so sure started to come back and gave us another chance.
What we try to bring you each day is a team effort without losing the essence of what we were at the old shop. We feel that we were successful in the re-creation of the old to the new – despite the fact that it was in a totally different space. We continue to try to give you the best coffee we can make. We still serve our teas in beautiful old china cups and saucer, our chair is still home-made and much loved and we really try to keep a wide range of books for you to choose from (despite the fact that we lost 30% of our shelving space in the move).
We hope that you continue to enjoy our shop and what it provides as much as we love creating and running it for you.
It has been a great honour to be part of the Bondi community and to actively participate in the cultural life of such a diverse, creative and vital place. We really do feel like the village general store where people can trade ideas, passions, be able to feel at “home” and yet also inspired to achieve their own imaginative heights as well.