A Melbourne bookstore has been forced to close after one of its neighbours complained to the council about the store producing too much “visual noise”.
The complaint about St Kilda-based Bookhouse was received last August, and the City of Port Phillip Council determined the shop was operating illegally in a residential zone.
Bookhouse has been selling books and art for almost 20 years, being founded in 1997. It moved to the Robe St location in 2012.
The location has long been used for as a business premise, dating back to the 1920s when it was a milk bar.
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Trading at the location could have continued if owners Ben Kemp and Margot McCartney were able to produce an ‘existing rights clause’ to prove the premises had been trading as a store for at least 15 years, without any breaks longer than two years.
However, a clothing designer occupied the location between 2009 and 2012, and the council determined the storefront was not considered an obvious shop during this time.
Speaking to SmartCompany this morning, Kemp says the nature of the complaint was the store was “visually offensive when you walk by”.
“I’m baffled, how can someone complain about ‘visual noise’ in St Kilda,” Kemp says.
Kemp hopes the council’s decision will be challenged but as the tenant, he says it is now out of his hands.
“A lot of it is in the hands of the building’s owner, but we hope he will challenge the decision,” Kemp says.
“It’s hard for us as is, bricks-and-mortar books is a tough road, and having this come up doesn’t help.”
Kemp says while the future of the physical store is uncertain, Bookhouse will continue to trade online.
“We can’t stay here and let this drag on while the lease is up in the air, we need to look elsewhere,” Kemp says.
“We’re currently focusing on reinforcing our online store.”
The store is popular with residents of the area, some of who told Fairfax the ruling is “grossly unfair.”
Long time Robe St resident and writer Bill Garner told Fairfax residents will be “very pissed off if [the store is] forced to leave.”
“It’s impossible to imagine it being offensive in any ordinary understanding of what offensive would mean,” Garner said.
Peter Strong, chief executive of the Council of Small Business of Australia, told SmartCompany the case represents a “classic problem” faced by Australian small businesses.
“We’ve got bureaucrats who are out of control, the local government hears one little complaint and thinks it’s the end of the world,” Strong says.
“We’ve got good examples of regulators who use common sense, Fair Work Ombudsman is one and we need more of them.”
Strong worries about the message these sorts of decisions send to other small businesses.
“If one person can decide if a shop stays open or not, then all businesses better become very bland and uninteresting quickly,” Strong says.
Council says it is “doing everything it can” to help
In a statement provided to SmartCompany, Port Phillip City Mayor Bernadene Voss said the Port Phillip City Council is “doing everything it can to help keep the Bookhouse or a similar commercial operation operating at the Robe Street site in St Kilda”.
“We have been working with the tenant and landowner for months to help resolve what is a complex issue raised in a complaint by a neighbour,” Voss said.
“The landowner has several options open to him: an appeal to VCAT [Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal], a possible re-zoning of the land (from General Residential Zoe to Commercial Zone) or applying for a planning permit for a different commercial use.
“While we originally sought an indication by 5 June, we have since made it very clear to the bookstore owner and the landowner that the bookshop can continue to trade until the landlord decides on a course of action.”
While Voss said the council has been “actively liaising” with the landowner’s consultants to “help them explore all options”, the business has already chosen to vacate the premises.
“We understand the community interest and feeling on this issue and want to assure everyone that Council continues to be committed to having a diverse and vibrant St Kilda,” she said.
*This article was updated at 3.15pm on May 24 to include a statement from the Port Phillip City Council.