If Annette Gilbert’s life story was a work of fiction, it would almost certainly be a best seller; she, the compelling protagonist in a melodrama punctuated by loss and love.
As it turns out, truth is stranger than fiction, and Annette has more stories than would fit comfortably in her Tanunda bookstore, The Raven’s Parlour Bookstore.
A former performer of Australian stage and screen, Annette’s professional career took her to Sydney and London as a classical ballet dancer and later, a singer, but it was literature that was her mainstay.
She credits her father with her rapacious love for the written word, and her formative years were shaped by literary giants.
“I came from a family, on my father’s side, of readers, and writers too. So I grew up reading many of dad’s books, all the Russians, Dostoyevsky and Turgenev,” recalls Annette.
“Dad’s war friend worked at the Parliamentary Library – it was formal and silent – and he would bring me a book every fortnight, and it would be just a fantastic book or an unusual book.
“I read every book by Dostoyevsky; when I read ‘The Idiot’ I actually bit it because I was enjoying it so much – I loved the intensity of it.”
Her love affair with literature continued during her relationship with well-established jazz pianist, Tony Gilbert.
“We always read, Tony and I, even though he was a jazz musician and I was a classical dancer.
“It was music that bought us together, but it just happened that we both read,” Annette recalls.
It wasn’t long before their respective careers took off, Annette working tirelessly to perfect her ballet technique.
“I trained with Leslie White (Royal Ballet School London), then Joan and Monica Halliday.
“I’m not naturally turned out, so I had to work harder. Everyone else could work four days a week but I had to work six,” she recalls.
Her professional career began at the age of 17 with Australian Dance Theatre, which, at that time, performed classical and modern.
She appeared as one of six dancers on the Reg Livermore Show and then on Bandstand, just as newcomer, Johnnie Farnham was premiering with the now-famous ‘Sadie’.
When the alluring lights of London beckoned, Annette chased her dream, landing a coveted spot with a Swedish ballet company.
She never saw the plot twist until it was upon her, forced to make a heart-wrenching choice between career and love.
“There’s a movie called Turning Point where one marries and one continues – I married,” Annette says.
“When I said I would marry him I cried for six weeks because I knew subconsciously it was the end of my career.
“The bond with Tony was too strong and I came back home.”
With her trademark resilience, Annette reinvented herself and made her debut as a singer, cleverly employing the ‘fake it till you make it’ tactic to hide her inexperience.
“I went to work with Wally Carr and before I knew it, I found myself on TV.
“They looked at me and said, this is Tony Gilbert’s wife, she must be terrific – I made all my mistakes publicly,” laughs Annette.
A natural talent, she went on to make regular appearances on Channel Nine variety show, Adelaide Tonight, performing both solo and back-up vocals, as well as a series of radio programmes.
“That was fun, great fun,” says Annette. “In the end I sang professionally longer than I danced, although I never felt as at home as I did with ballet.
“It was a fantastic life.”
Breaking stride to start a family with Tony, Annette joined an amateur ballet company after the birth of Sammi, staving off the “terrible” fate of becoming a suburban housewife.
When opportunity knocked in the form of a second-hand bookshop in Angaston, Annette pivoted once again.
“We started in a back shed in Blee Street and gradually took over the gallery (in Murray Street) and it became Timeless Books.
Peter Goers loved the shop – you either loved it or hated it because it rambled,” she recalls fondly.
Annette admits she didn’t do “a bit of research”, instead trusting her instincts, and she now lays claim to one of SA’s most successful regional retail bookstores.
On reflection, the bookstore was her saving grace when she lost Tony seven months ago to leukaemia: “That’s what saved me,” she says simply.
The success of The Raven’s Parlour Bookstore is due in no small part to her team of knowledgeable staff and her loyal repeat customers.
“Ours is quite different from city bookshops. We’re lucky because the Barossa is quite literary and just a little bit more sophisticated,” Annette says.
“Our customers read all sorts of things – history, military, crime, science fiction. It’s just something you get to know, it’s very nuanced.
“Also, it’s very social, our shop. We ask customers what they’re reading – that’s the critical question – and match the customer to the book. That’s the fun part!”
However she’s quick to debunk some common myths about running a bookstore, pointing to the 17 boxes of books that arrived earlier in the day.
“Most people say ‘it must be lovely owning a book shop’, imagining you just sit there and read,” she laughs.
“It’s a lot of work but I have no regrets – I love it every bit as much as dancing or singing.”