The best cricket bookstore in the world
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It’s like scheduling an appointment with the dentist. Nearly the first thing I did on reaching Melbourne was to call Roger Page, the greatest cricket bookseller in the southern hemisphere, and perhaps the world. A thick English accent—Page himself—greeted me from the other end and a meeting was set down for an afternoon two days later.
Page, 78, has been running his bookshop from his home on the north-east fringes of Melbourne for more than four decades. On the appointed day, a 40-minute subway ride took me from Flinders Street in central Melbourne to the station closest to Page’s house. Page told me he would pick me up from the station, making this the most elaborately planned visit ever to a bookshop.
There are several kinds of cricket fans. The most conspicuous are those who make up England’s Barmy Army and India’s Swami Army, who religiously follow their teams around the world and invaded Australia and New Zealand for the recent World Cup.
Second, the passive ones, who follow the game on television but invest no more energy in their chosen team. Finally, there is a very tiny minority who enjoy reading about the game as much, if not more, than watching it. For this category, Page’s house is no less than the Promised Land.
Page’s house is like no book store you’ve seen before—it’s perhaps the last of its kind. There is no clear distinction between home and store. There are cricket books in the kitchen. There are cricket books in the basement. There are cricket books on the floor above. The miracle is that Page knows where every book is. Minutes after I ask, Page goes upstairs and retrieves a pair of Gideon Haigh’s Ashes tour diaries in less than 5 minutes.
All this doesn’t include the main section (in what would have been an ordinary suburban house’s living room) where hundreds of cricket books are neatly classified by biography, autobiography, tour books, anthologies and history. Here exist all the Wisden Almanacks ever published, from 1864 to the present, as well as rare hardback editions of Jack Pollard’s epic five-volume history of Australian cricket. In the room beyond is Page’s office-cum-private collection, a near perfect illustration of the close intertwining of his life’s passion and trade.
Born in England, Page’s family moved to Australia when he was 12. He grew up in Tasmania, the island province of an island continent, with little history or literary tradition, forget a cricket literary tradition. It was an unlikely place for a young man to be obsessed with cricket books.
In 1969, Page travelled to England, the mecca of cricket publishing and bookselling, and lost himself in it. “I would buy these great cabin trunks and fill them with all the cricket books I’d bought. For £5 each (around Rs.460 now), I would mail them to Tasmania. The books used to arrive three months later.”
As he made little headway towards a career in the media, Page finally struck on the idea of a cricket bookshop. In the intellectual wilderness of Australia in the 1970s, this was a decidedly novel way to make a living. Every day Page worried whether he had made the right decision. “I took the gamble,” he says, “and it was a giant gamble.”
Once he set up the book store, Page made extensive contacts, scoured aggressively for private collections and frequently travelled to England. After he got married, he also shifted base from Tasmania and moved to Melbourne. “I relied on my wife to support me during those years,” he says.
Rumours about the existence of a cricket bookseller—and a rigorous, thorough and knowledgeable one at that, a genuine rarity—began to spread through word of mouth. Three private collectors in Australia became his first dedicated customers. When Page speaks about them now, it is less as patrons who ensured his commercial survival during the early, difficult years, and more as soulmates bound by a common, eccentric fetish. One of them, nearly 88 now, lives in Melbourne and remains Page’s close friend. “I speak to him regularly,” Page says. “We even met last night.”
It took four years, until the mid-1970s, for Page’s business to achieve a modicum of stability. Eventually, his customers grew to include Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell and the late Tony Greig. Among the press corps, Australia’s greatest cricket writers, past and present, count among regular visitors to Yallambie. These include the late Ray Robinson, Robert Craddock and Gideon Haigh. Touring journalists—mostly from India, according to Page—also make it a point to pay a visit.
For nearly 40 years, Page has been the main supplier for the library, responsible in a large way for its formidable stock of cricket literature. Apart from his occasional bursts of humour, Page is somewhat phlegmatic. He is also entirely free of boastfulness. His monument, his life’s labour, is evident to even the most fleeting visitor to his home at 10, Ekari Court, Yallambie.
David Studham, the chief librarian of the MCC library, remains astounded by his near wizardry in retrieving obscure titles. “It’s just the range and kind of things he can find,” says Studham. “He knows so many people around the world.” A few years ago, the MCC library was missing a couple of back issues of Indian Cricket, a now defunct, annual journal that lasted from 1947-2004. “We were missing the issues for 1958-59 and 1959-60,” Studham says. “Page had them within two weeks.”
Studham and Page speak often, roughly once or twice a week. “He’ll ring up, saying I’ve purchased this private collection, and send us a list,” Studham says.
He also regularly worries about life after Page. “He’s not getting any younger. When he’s no longer there, I just wonder what will happen…. Nobody has his kind of knowledge.”
Cricket publishing and bookselling are a business on the wane. There are few younger versions of Page. What is true of booksellers is true of buyers too. Page feels his customers “are getting older and older. The young either buy books online, or simply don’t read.”
What keeps him going? I had asked Page. “Friends who are similarly one-dimensional,” he answered, laughing. That, and being scorer of the Fitzroy-Doncaster Cricket Club, again steadfastly for 40 years.
Did he ever, during the last four decades, think of giving it up and doing something else? “No,” he replies, without pausing for a second.