First published with The Advocate –

Featured image – Dylan Burns

Clunes local Dr Tess Brady has been nominated as a finalist in Victorian Regional Achievement and Community Awards for her work in transforming Clunes to a vibrant and prosperous community.

Dr Brady is a finalist in Life Activities Clubs Victoria and Henry Carus and Associates Senior Achievement Award, recognising her work as one of the four original members of the Clunes Booktown team.

Clunes in a state of change

Dr Brady, Tim Hayes, Linda Newitt and Graeme Johnstone worked to see Clunes host the first Booktown Festival in 2007.

“It was very obvious that Clunes was in a state of change,” Dr Brady said.

“There were all kinds of chats about what this change could be. We could be a dormitory suburb of Ballarat, we could be a sale-yard, all kinds of things like this.

“None of us wanted this to happen. We had all just recently in the last few years come into Clunes and it was a beautiful village. We loved it and we wanted to maintain that village sense.

“What we didn’t want to do was change the town in any way. We wanted to find something that was quintessentially of the town and preserve its uniqueness, its gorgeousness, it’s strange street, all of those things.

“We did some research and we realised books was the thing that was important.”

Dr Tess Brady. Picture: Dylan Burns. 

Turning a new page for town

The team of four ran with the idea of transforming Clunes to a book town after gaining the support of over 50 leaders from local community groups.

“This town had a very large number of empty everything, particularly at the time,” Dr Brady said.

“All of the shops were empty, most of the public buildings were empty. There was emptiness everywhere. The buildings had been locked up and closed, so we had a lot of space.

“We thought booksellers could set up in these empty shops and empty buildings and not do any harm to them.”

After sending out around 100 invitations to book traders across the state one Friday night, Dr Brady spent the weekend racked with nerves.

“By Monday we had something like the 10 say yes, by the Wednesday 16 places had gone and they kept on coming. In the end we had 54 book traders,” Dr Brady said.

Community support first

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Dr Brady described a scene of tremendous community support two weeks before the first Booktown Festival was to begin.

“We had this extraordinary clean up of the town before this first festival. We all got together two weeks before and went into these buildings that hadn’t been opened for 30 years. We cleaned them and repaired them,” she said.

“When the first Booktown came we had over 300 volunteers. At the time in Clunes, on a good sunny day with all its weekenders, the town had about 750 people who lived here. So almost half the population were taking part in some way.”

Excitement at festival success

Dr Brady described a feeling of terror the morning of the first Booktown Festival. The volunteer team had brought 54 book traders to the town, but what if nobody came?

“It rained cats and dogs. It was windy and it was cold. It was the worst possible day,” Dr Brady said.

“At about 9.30am we had people from Ballarat coming and at about 11am streams and streams and streams of people came from Melbourne.

“We ran out of everything. We ran out of food, we ran out of money. It was the most extraordinary success. We weren’t expecting five or six thousand people, we were expecting hundreds.”

Prosperous township

This is a beautiful town. There is a sense of both culture here and prosperity. That was what we were aiming at from the very beginning. Always it was about culture and prosperity. – Clunes Booktown founding member Dr Tess Brady

Clunes Booktown Festival has grown in size and reputation since its inception in 2007. The town now hosts weekly author talks, is a member of the International Organisation of Booktowns and has paid staff working for Creative Clunes.

“What we had was a very disciplined story: ‘small town makes good using books’,” Dr Brady said.

“We kept working and working and working at it. Now places like this cafe exist. “Now there are jobs for kids, they don’t have to go to Ballarat to get an after school job. Mums and carers who want part time jobs can get them. This town is thriving.

“Almost everything has changed, but the community is still strong. It takes a long time to walk down this street, not because of the distance but because of the conversations you have on the way.”

A Clunes calling after ‘mistake’

Dr Brady first came to Clunes in 2003, ending up in the town after driving in by mistake.

“I drove in here by mistake and within two weeks I had jumped ship and moved to Clunes,” Dr Brady said.

“I just knew I had to come. I just knew my whole life depended on it. I just knew there was something extraordinary, that this place was just calling me.

“I don’t know how you could not keep incredible busy in this town.”

Recognised for commitment

Award winners will be announced at a presentation on October 13.