A botanical metaphor seems apt to describe Australia’s specialist garden bookseller. Let’s go with a waratah. Like the striking flower, Gil Teague’s Florilegium is a highly specialised survivor in difficult conditions. Waratahs survive drought and bushfire, and independent booksellers certainly feel they’ve been through both in recent years. Now though, Teague feels that garden books have seen off the threat of the e-book.
“Readers have realised that the experience of reading is different with a book versus a screen,” he says. “For non-fiction, books are easier – easier to flick backwards and forwards, and to check the index.” And it’s not just practicalities that favour the physical book. “A book has a more personal quality. Imagination comes into play. You spin off into your thoughts, and then come back to the author so that the quality of communication between the author and reader is different,” he insists.
Teague started Florilegium in 1989. The fun had leached out of his job as editorial director at McGraw-Hill when he came across an ad in The British Bookseller for Hortus. Hortus is a publishing throwback; a paperback-sized quarterly published on quality stock with no glossy pictures, only lots of well-written words and occasional woodblock engravings and line drawings. Teague struck a deal to be the journal’s Australian agent.
The plan was to use Hortus to launch a garden publishing business, though that plan required heavy pruning. Florilegium has published some of our finest garden writers– Peter Valder, Michael McCoy, Alistair Hay – but the business has been primarily a retail operation of new and secondhand books, which Teague takes on the road. His tall lanky frame is a regular sight at plant fairs and garden shows around the country. “I can see thousands of people over a weekend at a plant fair, or 300 people in an afternoon at a Cottage Garden Club meeting,” he says. “I’d never see that as foot traffic here.” And it’s true that in the hour we spend in his shop off Glebe Point Road, no customers turn up. Except me, my attention instantly snagged by a new book about Piet Oudolf’s life and work and home garden, Hummelo.
With Christmas in sight, Florilegium’s customer base is bolstered by seasonal shoppers, and Teague resists helping them out with specific recommendations. “I stock more than 5000 titles,” he pleads, “across so many different interests: design, individual plants, environmental issues, books that are just a good read, botany, plant hunting, growing food….” Pushed, he admits that Huanduj: Brugmansia, by Alistair Hay, Monika Gottschalk and Adolfo Holguin, which Florilegium published in 2012, is a personal favourite for the depth of its research and the questions it brings up about human relationships to plants.
His advice to garden book gift-givers is to consider the reading and garden tastes of the giftee; to take note of any highlighter circles in a Florilegium catalogue left open on the kitchen table, or to visit the shop and chance the serendipity of bookshop racks and their armfuls of intrigue and surprise.