Behind the pages of Brisbane's oldest book fair

Image of books sitting neatly on a metal shelf.

Image: Anjanette Hudson

Image: Anjanette Hudson

By Grace Cassidy
UQ Master of Writing, Editing and Publishing student
2021 UQ Alumni Book Fair intern


Our relationship with reading has shifted drastically over the last 12 months. The introduction of COVID-19 restrictions has led to people turning to their bookshelves in droves.

Four months ago, Global English Editing conducted a study that revealed 35 per cent of people were reading more books than they did before the pandemic – a silver lining amid the cancellation of literary festivals and book store closures.

Thankfully, in 2021, Brisbane bookworms can look forward to the return of the city’s oldest book fair – although, it might not be the one you think.

In 1978, Lisbeth Hopkins was reading The Australian Women’s Weekly when she stumbled across an article about a book fair put on by the University of New South Wales. It might never have caught her eye, but this article landed in Lisbeth’s lap at a fortuitous time.

In the late 1970s, The University of Queensland (UQ) was expanding at a rapid pace, and the Alumni Association was looking for ways in which to support UQ students and researchers. This led to a small magazine feature on a university book fair sparking a brilliant idea.

Lisbeth proposed that the volunteer-run UQ Alumni Association (later renamed Alumni Friends) should organise a book fair to raise money for the University.

The idea was so well received that mere weeks later, and now in charge of a brand-new subcommittee, Lisbeth was seeking advice from Ann Ship, co-convenor of the very book fair she’d read about.

Within a month, the committee had already picked a date and a location for the first event.

A stack of antique books with brown and gold covers.

One of many collections of books available at the Book Fair. (Image: Anjanette Hudson).

One of many collections of books available at the Book Fair. (Image: Anjanette Hudson).

An black and white image of the front of the Avalon Theatre taken in 1971

Avalon Theatre in 1971. (Image: University of Queensland Archives).

Avalon Theatre in 1971. (Image: University of Queensland Archives).

A woman is searching through books at the 2019 UQ Alumni Book Fair

2019 UQ Alumni Book Fair. (Image: Anjanette Hudson).

2019 UQ Alumni Book Fair. (Image: Anjanette Hudson).

Alumni Friends of The University of Queensland reached out to local papers, radio stations and television, putting out calls for book donations and volunteers. Posters went up in shop windows, and word of the book fair quickly made its way around town.

The Alumni Friends office at St Lucia was flooded with book donations coming in around the clock. The team organising the book fair, made up primarily of volunteers, rapidly expanded to include more than 100 people.

Eventually, when the office became overwhelmed, the University found a second location specifically for book fair operations.

On 1 September, 1979 the UQ Alumni Book Fair opened its doors with 45,000 books, 150 cartons of magazines and 1200 records for sale.

The Book Fair venue, the Avalon Theatre, was so overwhelmed by the crowds that they had to close the doors – long queues stretched down the street outside. The first of the famous Rare Book Auctions was held right on the theatre’s front steps.

Five days later, stocks were thoroughly depleted and the Alumni Association volunteers had raised a staggering $19,000. That’s almost $95,000 at current values.

Lisbeth’s brilliant idea worked, and it’s been working ever since.

Stacks of aged books on a shelf.

Every year, a team of passionate volunteers spend many hours sorting and categorising thousands of donated books. Lana has been a volunteer with the Book Fair since 1982.

“I do love it, and it matters. Books matter,” said Lana, surrounded by a small mountain of children’s books.

Since it began, the UQ Alumni Book Fair and Rare Book Auction has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of UQ’s researchers, educators and students.

In 2020, Alumni Friends donated $50,000 to create an endowment to support UQ students in financial need.

Fittingly, it is the Lisbeth Hopkins OAM Scholarship, named in honour of the founder of the Book Fair, and in recognition of the work of Alumni Friends’ book group volunteers past and present.

It's not long now until the annual UQ Alumni Book Fair will be back for four days from 30 April 2021, at the UQ Centre.

Come and browse the stacks for your favourite novels, bid on an 1881 edition of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in the Rare Book Auction, and celebrate an incredible legacy that spans 42 years.