“It’s very hard to look at a successful bookstore and try to copy it,” says Joni Stephen, co-owner of Modern Times in Newtown. “You do have to be a bit crazy to run this business and you really need to be born into it to learn how to curate.”
Stephen would know. Her parents John and Pia Butler opened Modern Times on King Street in 1979. She now runs it with her brother, Martin Butler. Children that once came into the store now come in with kids of their own. Apart from a fairly extensive renovation in 2009, not much else has changed. “We’re very old school here and always will be,” says Stephen. “We’re not computerised, we don’t scan anything, we hand price everything. People just have to use their brains.”
The shop is orderly and charming, with staff bustling about happily. This mood extends to the floor. “People always bump into friends here and stop to have a chat. It’s turned into a meeting place,” says Stephen. “[Because the staff] are pretty happy I think customers feel that vibe. People always say there’s a good energy.”
With almost 40 years on the strip, Stephen has seen King Street go through many different chapters. “It’s not only that it’s changed a lot, but how regularly it’s now changing,” she says. “Businesses are opening and closing on a six-month basis. Fifteen years ago, I knew every business on King Street, now I’ve got no idea.”
Still, they love Newtown for its constant oddball occasions. They were there when the water buffalo ran down King Street, and once Stephen chased a shoplifter for a kilometre, before he jumped a fence and started leaping across rooftops to escape her. “I yelled at him, ‘who do you think you are, Tom Cruise?’” she recalls.
It all goes into the “goat (Greatest of All Time) book”: a large notebook kept at the counter where all the strange things that happen are recorded, along with the more interesting doodles customers draw when testing out pens. If you’re in-store, a thumb through this fascinating chronicle reveals an unmatched weird history of the suburb.