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In My Backyard / Leo Berkelouw

Leo Berkelouw is the charming and erudite patriarch of the Berkelouw book dynasty, which was started in 1812 in Holland. There are now Berkelouw bookshops from Queensland to Sydney to Leo’s Southern Highlands home, the 200 acre Bendooley Estate. Leo tells Escape of the incredible bravery of his parents, why he started selling books from ‘a paddock near Berrima’, and how books, food, wine and hospitality are such a blockbuster combination.

‘I have books in my blood. I’m the fifth generation in our business. My boys Paul, Robert and David are the sixth. My great great grandfather Solomon started our business in Kipstraat, Rotterdam, where my family came from. He sold theology books to barge owners and skippers. He drowned one winter’s day after slipping on the passerelle of a boat. He fell into the icy waters, weighed down by his bag of books.

So there is tragedy in our family. But also bravery. My father, Isidoor, was Jewish. He worked in the family business, buying and issuing catalogues of rare and collectable books. He was married to my mother, Francis, a Protestant Dutch English woman. As Jews, my father and his whole family were forced to wear the yellow star of David on their coats during the war. When my father was picked up by the authorities, they notified my mother he was to be deported on a train to Germany but she could go to the detention centre where he was being held to say goodbye. My mother was an extraordinary woman. She was attractive, blonde with blue eyes. She left my older brother, Henry, who was seven, at home with a friend and put me in the pram. I was the baby. About three. Under the pram mattress she put a pile of women’s clothing. She pushed me in, and two women and a baby came out of that detention centre. My father was hidden in Amsterdam for the duration of the war. His brothers, sisters, mother and father were taken to Germany, where they were gassed like many other people. He lost his whole family to the Holocaust.

My father was a good man. He was strict but we were close. I had great admiration for him. He never talked about the past very much. Life as I grew up was to get on for the future. Within two weeks of the cessation of hostilities in Europe I was on a military aircraft to England, where I went to boarding school for two years. But in March 1948 we left for Australia. All our book stock had been destroyed during the battle of Rotterdam in 1940, and there were just too many terrible memories in Europe.

My parents arrived with Henry, me, our younger sister Francis, a few suitcases and 30 pounds. I was nine. We lived in Roseville in Sydney. I went to school, made friends, played soccer. It was a happy childhood. It was harder for my parents, who were very European. Initially my father went into the rag trade and hated it. Books that weren’t anglophile didn’t exist in shops here then. But there were other books .. French atlases, German natural history books with coloured plates. Books people who had fled from other parts of the world, like us, had brought with them. He started buying them from deceased estates and cataloguing them, and we developed into a mail order type of operation. We had a shop in King Street in Sydney.

I went to university but dropped out when my father needed another pair of hands. Fuddy duddy old men coming into a bookshop wasn’t the vision I had of what my life was going to be. But I persevered and I realised I had the capacity to buy well. It was instinctive to me. Books are a passion, but also a trade. My father always said, as a dealer if you start collecting you’ll send yourself broke. Having said that, as a young man I started collecting The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which is a Persian love tale. I now have more than 1300 editions.

Noelene, my late wife, and I bought Bendooley in 1975. We were renting in Sydney with our three little boys, and an uncle who lived in Moss Vale said, “There’s a place you should look at.” I had just returned from a buying trip to England and seen how the booksellers dealing in old and rare books like us had moved from central London and its exorbitant rents to these ancestral homes in the countryside. I knew that was the way we should take our business.

We loved it here. The land and the 1839 sandstone house with its wide verandahs. People thought we were mad, starting a book business in a paddock, but today we probably have nearly one million books, some very rare and collectable, sent to collectors and universities all over the world, others second hand, many new. We are probably the leading experts in rare and antiquarian books in Australia.  Robert and David look after the Sydney stores, and Paul looks after the hospitality side here; Paul, Robert and David run the bookstores in their varied locations. In recent years Paul and I have pursued the evolution of what Bendooley Estate looks like today. A hospitality business that includes the Book Barn restaurant, cellar door, the weddings, and our six new accommodation cottages (see page XXX) To do hospitality alongside bookselling is unusual and a great point of difference. People still somehow like to collect something.

We’ve been here 40 years, and I’ve been selling books since I was 18. I’m 80 now but I still find it exciting to come across a new collection. I’ve just taken delivery of some 17th  century Isaac Newton first editions. Wonderful, wonderful books that came from the deceased estate of a retired university professor. He collected this stuff his whole life. It was his calling.’

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