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Jane Turner – Bondi Born and Bred

By James Hutton on October 21, 2019 in People

Everyone loves Jane, by Paul McMillan.

Many of our readers would know Jane Turner as the friendly face behind Bondi’s iconic bookshop and café, Gertrude & Alice, which she has been running now for nearly two decades. We’ve always thought the world of Jane, so we decided to interview her for the cover of this month’s magazine. We’re glad we did…

How are you this morning Jane? Fine thank you, having survived the photo shoot.

What are your favourite childhood memories? I was born and bred here in Bondi. I went to Bondi Public School on Wellington Street and then on to Sydney Girls High School. We grew up on Bondi Road, opposite Waverley Council in the big terrace houses there. Some early memories were learning to swim at Bondi Baths. Some days the waves would be crashing wildly over the edge and they’d still throw you in to the deep end to sink or swim. I loved summer days at the beach bodysurfing on my dad’s back and weekends with my cousins and grandparents at Bundanoon milking cows and riding on the hay bale tractor.
When we used to walk home from school up Bondi Road there was a little lolly shop on the corner of Penkivil Street. It was owned by this lovely old lady named Miss Turner and I used to tell all the kids that she was my grandmother. That white lie came unstuck when they’d pressure me to get free lollies. Around our area at home there was a little gang of kids and we’d meet up every afternoon. My best friend Mary had the shop next door and we used to get cardboard from the drink boxes and scoot down the hills at Waverley Park. We would get into trouble from the rangers for leaving the cardboard behind. There were about ten of us and we just had to make our own fun. The only rule was to be home before the lights went on.

Are those kids still around? You know, I am still great friends with half a dozen people I went to kindergarten with and we catch up as often as we can, even though only three of us are still around Bondi. Mary is still my best friend and we see each other often. She lives in Cronulla and is godmother to my son Jordan. Mary’s family is Greek and I feel so lucky to have grown up with her family and so many other cultural influences in my life. I love how they have such a rich history and life revolves around family, entertaining and food. I’m so lucky to have had those friends in my life and for the many gifts that their friendships have brought me. They really made me who I am.

What did your parents do for a crust? I think my mum had a lot of different jobs but she was a personal assistant to a handbag designer as we got older. Dad was the general manager of the Glebe Island Wheat Terminal, so we used to visit there a lot. Driving over that bridge now always makes me think of him because when he had to work weekends we’d go and visit him quite often. I don’t know that parents were too involved in the school but I can remember my mum doing tuck shop and things like that. I don’t think they were born in Bondi but they went to Wellington Street School as well, both of them.

Most people would know you from your shop, Gertrude & Alice; were you interested in business from a young age?
No, not really. I was always fascinated by Mary’s shop and I loved working behind the counter with her in the afternoons, so maybe that had more influence on me than I realised at the time. When I left school I actually did nursing for a couple of years and ended up on some tough wards, for a young girl just out of school. I went to work for a newspaper, book and magazine distribution company called T.B Clarke and they distributed around the world. We used to sell the Australian Women’s Weekly cookbooks overseas, which was a huge market share back in the late ’80s. I looked after the Asia and Pacific Islands market. As my daughter Kate was only very little at the time, it meant short trips away if I had to travel. Sometimes in the school holidays she would travel with me. We ended up having big growth in Fiji and we ended up living there for nearly nine years.

Where abouts? We lived in Lautoka and Nadi and travelled around the islands a lot. I got married while I was there and my son Jordan is half Fijian. Our time there was a huge part of our lives. We started children’s book clubs in schools, put good quality books into school libraries and stopped Fiji being used as a dumping ground for low quality, crappy books. I believe that we really made a huge difference and I’m very proud of the changes that we were able to make. My brother Stephen lived there too and ran one of the earliest surf companies, Surf Fiji, but that was maybe 35 years ago now.

What gave you the idea to start Gertrude & Alice, and how did that all unfold?
When I got back from Fiji I went back to T.B. Clark for a while. Jordan was only about one when we came back, so I was pretty burnt out. We’d worked really hard so I took a redundancy package from T.B. Clark and went to work in a little second hand bookshop in Glebe and met my friend Katerina, who had said she wanted to go and do her own bookshop café and asked whether I’d be interested in doing it with her. I said, “Well, I really don’t know anything about the café side of things but I definitely could have a go at setting up a bookshop,” so she put the café together and I put the bookshop together and we opened at 40 Hall Street in 2001.

It was a surf shop beforehand? It was a surf shop before. I don’t know what his name was but I remember he wanted to go and we just paid him, I don’t know, maybe a thousand dollars for all the fittings. The counter that we had was a beautiful old wooden surf counter with the old… it had a logo on there, whatever it was, Quicksilver I think.

Was it always the plan to open the shop in Bondi, or could it have been anywhere? No, we were actually trying to do one in Darlinghurst. We had all the shelving and everything made for this one but then the deal fell through. We’d given up our jobs and we wanted to get it happening so we could have an income. We’d put all the money that we had into the shop and we really needed to find somewhere. When the Darlinghurst one fell through, one of my girlfriends who owned some property around here said, “Oh, I heard that this guy wants to get out and maybe you can, you know, go and have a chat to him,” so we sat around on Hall Street just watching the foot traffic and thinking, “Oh yeah, that person might come in and buy a book,” and then we just sort of thought that this might be the go. It was kind of busy then like it still is now, in terms of foot traffic. Of course, for me, living in Bondi, it was heaven to be able to live and work in my local area.

And Katerina, your business partner, she only stayed for seven months? She did. I think both of us, when we opened the shop, we were married and about six weeks after opening the shop our marriages fell apart around the same time.

The shop’s fault? Yeah, we do blame the shop, but she ended up working on her marriage and she also wanted to concentrate more on her writing. She was a very talented writer, she’s published three books now I think, so it was a bit different for her. She went back to work on her marriage and I was a single mum with two kids so I had to make it work. I had a great belief in the shop at the time. I thought we had only just touched the surface. We used to get a lot offers all the time about buying the shop but I just wasn’t ready to do it, I wanted to see what it could do.

Can you reflect on the changes that have taken place in Bondi since you were a little girl? Look, I think it goes through cycles. I think that sometimes it sort of loses its way a little bit and we go away from the things that are important to us as a community. But somehow it sort of seems to right itself at certain times. It’s pretty tough out there at the moment, there’s a lot of businesses doing it harder than we ever have before because, you know, the changes to online buying, we no longer use grocery stores to do our shopping, we don’t go to the butchers, everyone delivers now, so it definitely is going through some changes and I think Bondi needs to diversify a little bit more so we get that sense of community back. Because that’s what rights us, when we all work as a community.

Is that sense of community still strong? I think it is still strong. Even though you have ever-changing faces among the locals, in amongst that there are some people who care very deeply about what happens here. If you look at what’s happening with the post office, there’s just always a small group of people that fight for what they believe in, things like not having huge developments in Bondi, not changing the whole look and feel of the place. You don’t want it to be like the Gold Coast with high-rise everywhere. You want it to retain its sense of localness and community because that’s what it is. I think I get really upset about things when, you know, as a local, James, you get to have Bondi to yourself in winter time and it’s just lovely. You can park, you can eat, you don’t have to queue for anything, and then for around six months of the year we have to give all that up. We pay to live here as locals and yet you only can fully enjoy your area for part of the year and that sort of gets my goat a bit.

Do you think Airbnb has had a massive impact? A lot of places that would have previously had families living in them are now just being let year-round to holiday renters… I don’t know too much about it. I know that it probably benefits us in some way because those people will eat out, it’s just a base for them. They like to explore the local community, so in some way that works for local businesses. Because Bondi has become so expensive to live it’s moved a lot of the families west. I think that’s where you find a big difference, when the families sort of have to move out because they can’t afford to live here. Families with young children tend to care a lot about where they live and what happens in their community. I think that’s what rights us sometimes, when the families sort of find their way back and we work as a team.

You’re still happy in Bondi? You would happily stay here forever? Yes I am happy here. It’s mine and my children’s home. However, I no longer think that I will stay here forever. Hopefully my daughter Kate will take over the day-to-day running of the business, which she almost does solely now anyway, and while Jordan helps me manage the bookshop he also has his own business. He’s a fashion blogger and his Instagram is @mrturner. He is definitely the creative side of our family. I think a tree change is what I’m seeking and I think I might head to the country. Good air, slower pace. Slow it down a little maybe.

How has the Adina development on Hall Street impacted businesses and local residents? I think it’s been positive, although a lot of the locals probably won’t say that, but it has been of a benefit to us because people will venture out of their rooms and have that connection in coffee shops or in restaurants. Obviously a lot of people from overseas come in. We get a lot of people from Hong Kong that say books are so expensive in Hong Kong, they just come and buy so many books to take back, so that’s been a huge benefit to us. We also supply morning teas to the conference room, always trying to keep it local. It’s been great to have Harris Farm there and some of the restaurants are great too.

Do you have any favourite local haunts, other than Gertrude & Alice of course? I try not to spend time there when I’m not working. I’m not a big drinker, James, although my children make up for my non-drinking. I treat myself nowadays with things like getting my hair done or having a facial up at Sage in North Bondi. I love Junia and her team, they are lovely up there. I miss being able to grab a salmon on the way home from Fishmonger’s. It’s moved up to Beach Road now. I love Totti’s. I love eating at Peppe’s on Bondi Road, owned by Joe and Grace who used to work with us. I think Botanica restaurant at Vaucluse is the whole package, and for weekend coffee when I don’t want to go to Gertrude & Alice I’ll head to Ruby’s Diner in Charing Cross for a dingo coffee.

Did Kelly do your hair? Yeah, Kelly from Toni&Guy did it, and helped me because I don’t even own any lipstick! She said I had to give it back but I said I quite liked it so I might just keep it.

Swap it for a coffee… Yeah. I love the Icebergs, we had a beautiful dinner at the Icebergs when I won that Businesswoman of the Year award and they gave me a $400 voucher, so we had a lovely meal, the four of us, it was really nice.

You can have a bloody good afternoon there for 400 bucks! Does anything annoy you about the area? Maybe just back to the fact that it’s only available to us at winter time, as a true home, you know? That you sort of have to compete with things over the summer. While I get that the beach is very advantageous in it’s way, I just think there has to be some sort of balance. Not being able to drive in here during Sculpture by the Sea and Festival of the Winds can be frustrating but that’s only one day I suppose. Those sort of days get my goat a little bit when you’re stuck in traffic for an hour and it’s normally a five-minute trip.

How would you feel about a train to Bondi Beach? I haven’t given it very much thought.

I’m scared to even ask that question because people are so staunchly against it… You know, James, having grown up on Bondi Road, it was always bumper to bumper.

Even when you were little? Even when I was little.

That’s interesting… But there were trams when I was little, I think, because I remember seeing the tramlines there for a long time. My mum and dad used to speak quite fondly about the trams. I need to know more about it before I have an opinion, but we do have to do something.

The Bondi Road monorail? Good god.

How challenging were the early years at Gertrude & Alice? Katerina had run a café, but we had never done a café bookstore. Back when we opened in the beginning of 2001 there was nothing like it. Back in that day we were very unique. It was definitely Katerina’s vision more than mine, I was just happy to go along for the ride and happy that she gave me the opportunity to be involved because I certainly didn’t have the money to put in that she did.

Does she still come in to the shop sometimes? They live on the Sunshine Coast now, she does her writing and they live off the grid. They just bought a new property and it looks amazing. I’ll be visiting very soon.

Is it true that you both had over 40,000 books in each of your houses at one stage? We did, yes. I think there’s somewhere between 15,000 and 18,000 in the shop now.

That’s a lot of books… We had to work because we were both still working full-time. I trawled many charity shops on my way home and then I’d do garage sales on the weekends, so every bit of spare money we had was put into stocking the shop.

The business is a great success story, especially considering the way businesses come and go on this street; how have you been able to survive when so many other businesses, particularly bookstores, have disappeared? I’d have to say that the key to success is the support from your local community, because you’re only as good as your last coffee, James.

You’re still bloody good then… You have to constantly try new things and be innovative – adding alcohol licences, for example – and not assume that the books that sold well ten years ago are going to sell nowadays. I also think it’s just the way we’ve looked after people. Some of the customers have been there since the beginning and we’re 19 years old now. Young Ella, who works for us now, she used to come in to the shop in a stroller and now she does Saturdays and Sundays with us and is doing her HSC. She’s been a customer right back from early on, as has Zak, who also works for us on the weekends.

Dan and I used to sit in that little window seat in the original shop fifteen years ago when we were working out how we were going to start this bloody magazine… I still remember the day I met you guys. I remember that very, very well. I remember you asking me and I just remember saying, “Do your research, there’s definitely a market for something.”

How would you describe the current business climate? We speak with a lot of small businesses each month and I feel like it’s a challenging time for small businesses… Yeah, I talk about this a lot to businesspeople and I think, for us, we really noticed the change around the elections in May. People will always tighten their belts around election time, and then straight after the election we had financial year end, which is another belt tightening time. And then there was something else after that too. I think people just got used to not spending. This is the first time in 19 years that we’ve really noticed people are not spending as much as they used to, they’re just being a lot more careful with their money. People say, “Oh, maybe it’s Kindles or online businesses,” but I don’t think that’s what it is because we’re selling more books than we ever have before. I don’t think that the hardcopy book will ever go away. I mean, what can you do with $4 coffees, James? It’s very hard to keep putting prices up in line with what happens in the market. I talk to lots of local cafés about this. The cost of wages is a huge thing. Insurance costs as well. I mean, all the extra parts of the business, the extras are just really hurting.

How do you feel about penalty rates? Well, it’s so hard, you know, we’re a service business so we like to open every day of the year except Christmas Day, that’s how we look after our customers. It’s getting harder and harder to open on public holidays and it means the kids and I have to work every single public holiday to avoid losing money. Lots of café owners have said to me recently that they’re going to close on public holidays and we may be close to doing that too. I think that the public will be disadvantaged by that. Something has to change.

You’d have to have one of the lowest staff turnovers of any café in the area; is there a secret to that, other than just being nice to them?
I don’t think I’m that nice really.

They’re scared to leave? I always tell Dan that it’s like the Hotel California: ‘You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.’

How long has Dan been working there for now? Dan’s been there ten years now. He’s very well loved by the locals, he’s like the king of the kids. The kids just love Dan, they sit up with him and turn the coffee grinder on and pretend they’re making coffee. That’s the fun part of what we do, to watch the kids grow up, start school…

And start working for you… That’s right, put them to work.

Do you think franchise businesses, as opposed to independently owned businesses, detract from the character of the shopping strip? I think too many of them can. I’ve always had this vision that you’d like Bondi to be a lot more of a ‘village’ type area. You know, where there’s little markets and different types of shops. But there’s hardly any shops now, they’ve all been driven out because of high rents. I think that at some point, with commercial leases, the landlords are going to have to have a look at the situation and just say, “Listen, we have to cut these guys a bit of a break.” It’s happened in Paddington and there’s still a lot of empty shops, yet Double Bay has somehow resurrected itself.

Can you tell us your favourite five books of all time? Oh, yes, I can. I think A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is my very favourite, and I don’t know how many hundreds and hundreds of this book we’ve sold, because obviously when I talk about it so much all of the staff have read it, and they loved it too. We were so lucky because she was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. She didn’t win it but quite often I think the shortlist are better than the winner, in my opinion. When my children and I went on a holiday in Tasmania, my son, who’s an Instagram influencer, whatever they do, took photos everywhere of him reading her book, and she was replying to him. He said, “If you ever come to Bondi, would you come to the bookshop and do a signing?” She said, “Yeah, of course.” Lots of people say that but they never do, but then when she did come and did a tour here she came and told her publicist, “I’m going to Gertrude & Alice,” and they went, “Oh, that’s just a little bookshop, you can’t go there. You need to go to these big ones,” like Dymocks and everything. And she said, “I’m going there.” She went for a swim at Icebergs, she spent the whole day here, signed a few hundred books. We were like, fangirling over her. She was here to speak at the Sydney Writer’s Festival and we went to all of her talks. She ran out of the line and came and talked with us and met my son, who was the one who ultimately brought her here. It’s an amazing book and that’s my favourite.
One of my other favourites is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. It’s about India and the class system and I just loved all the characters and those people stayed with me. I still worry about them. A book I read in high school and I’m too scared to read again, but I have to say it’s my favourite book of all time, it’s called The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. It changed me as a person at the time. I’m a Tim Winton fan, a big Tim Winton fan, and I really loved The Shepherd’s Hut. This one was one of my favourite reads. And I think I’ll throw in a classic and say In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

Do you write? I can’t write. I am in awe of people who can write. I have a lot of helpers in the café that help me write. I wish I could, James, but I just accept that it’s not one of my strengths. Being a good reader doesn’t make you a good writer. If I have to write something I’ll get Katerina or Lucy or someone in the shop to help me. Maybe when I retire I’ll have a bit of a go at it.

Any up and coming local authors that we need to keep an eye out for? We have started a book club at the shop, it’s call The Bondi Literary Salon. We try to have local authors as well as well-known authors. We’ve got Kate McClymont coming up later in October but this magazine won’t be out by then. I just finished her book, Dead Man Walking, and there’s just something about the way she writes and does her research. I started the Eddie Obeid book straight after that because I’m fascinated with Kate and how brave and fearless she is as an investigative journalist. We also have Tom Cronin, who runs The Stillness Project, and his new book, The Portal. I finally got Markus Zusak, who is the author of Bridge of Clay and The Book Thief. I’ve been trying to get Markus to talk at the shop for two years now, he will be talking on November 20. I’m very, very excited about that.

Where do most of your book donations come from? We’ve been so fortunate in the last six months that most of the books that have come into the shop have been from people who are happy to donate them, and those donations have helped us through tougher times in the last six months, James. I’m really grateful, it’s made such a difference to our bottom line in tough times.

You’ve been described as a “community leader”; what qualities have earned you this description? I do have a huge care factor about my local community and the people in it. I don’t know that I would call myself a leader but I try to get involved in the things that matter. I try to support other people’s initiatives. I try to follow things that are important to me, you know, some of the projects like Tim with Take 3 for the Sea and Sarah Wilson’s zero waste philosophy. Our café has taken a very strong stance on single-use take away coffee cups and we encourage the use of reusable keep cups. When we tried to initiate this a few years ago customers were completely resistant. Now they’re totally on board and supportive of it and have fully embraced it.

Technology has had a massive impact on the way we write and consume writing; how do you feel about these changes that have occurred? Ultimately, I think they are changes for the better because it means we can have information at our fingertips all the time, but the downside to it is that we’re an instant gratification society, and I don’t particularly like that. There’s no anticipation anymore in waiting for something. We can get books delivered to our iPads, we can make things happen instantly, and I think there was something in the wait, in that anticipation, before.

You sent a package to my brother during one of his hospital stays. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and Sapiens were both in there; why did you choose those two? I was just trying to think of things that he would be interested in while he’s battling this illness. I thought Sapiens is about the history of humankind and I thought, in the process of him getting well, he’d have to change the way he thought about life and, you know, focus on his self-care a little bit more. I was trying to think of what might grab him in the early stages of getting better. I think we threw some little green protein balls in there as well.

What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs keen to follow in your footsteps? No matter how clever you are, or how your spreadsheet looks, you’re still in for a lot of hard work. You have to be prepared to sort of… who would want to follow in my footsteps, James, honestly?! Maybe you find a point of difference, find something that you can do better or differently to the way that other people do it, just find a little gap in the market, a little niche, something that people aren’t doing. While we’re doing away with all these other things that we no longer need, people need connection and they need people contact as we all sit in our homes and type away and have these very… I don’t want to say ‘anti-social’, that’s not the right word, but you know what I mean.

People sit at home watching Netflix and order Deliveroo… Human connection is the essence of who we all are. I think that’s why cafés and meeting places are important. Gertrude & Alice is a very safe place. It’s a comfortable space. I mean, our customers are predominately women, but they can sit there on their way home, have something to eat, have a glass of wine, do a little bit of work or talk to someone at the community table if that’s what they feel like they want to do. I just don’t ever want to lose that connection, that human connection, and I think that the café is a bit of a community hub for that.

In an ideal world, what does the future hold for Jane Turner? I never used to think very much about this but, you know, approaching 60, I sort of do spend a little bit more time thinking about it now. I hope that my daughter Kate will take over the running of the book shop and I can head off to the country. I think I just want to get away from the noise and the hustle and bustle. I’ve got my eye on a place called Grenfell. It’s sort of out past Young and Cowra. I have family there and I love spending time there. I could find myself a nice little place, have a veggie garden, do some reading in the sunroom…

You don’t need to be near the beach? I would definitely miss the beach. Being in the water and even just seeing the water grounds me. Sometimes, on crazy, busy, hectic days if we don’t have time to swim I’ll say to the kids, “Let’s just drive past the water on the way home and breathe it all in.” Even looking at the water is therapeutic, it really calms me. I’ve never lived away from the coast before but I just may be up for the challenge. Who knows? ●