West Melbourne bookshop bar set to grow with small business grant

19 February 2024

Settle in with a book and a beverage at Willows & Wine – West Melbourne’s only wine bar come bookshop and library. The inclusive space is also set to become a hub for aspiring business owners.

Amy Poonian is no stranger to the small business scene. Growing up, her parents were self-employed, which encouraged Amy to work for herself.

After 20 years of hospitality and arts industry experience around the world, Amy is the owner of Willows & Wine at 315 Victoria Street, West Melbourne.

“After a few years of searching for a business to buy, in November 2020 – fully aware we were in the middle of a pandemic – I decided to buy a wine bar. My mum said: just give it three years and see what happens,” Amy said.

Successfully navigating multiple lockdowns, Amy has created a thriving business that specialises in showcasing books by First Nations, culturally diverse and queer authors, alongside a selection of drinks and cheeseboards.

Amy and her team also host a popular monthly book club with around 50 regular members, as well as promoting the venue as a place for authors to hold book launches, and operating as a library.

Amy was recently awarded a City of Melbourne small business grant to expand Willows & Wine into a training facility for women and non-binary people looking for hands-on experience to run their own business.

She will also be offering new affordable workshops and events to the general public through a program called ‘Making Space’.

Shaping the business to customer needs

“Initially, the idea was just to make the business run, check how customers use the space and ultimately see if the idea of a bookstore and wine bar works. But more recently I’ve wanted to try new things,” Amy said.

“We are not a traditional wine bar, cafe or bookstore. Some customers walk in with a pre-conceived idea of what we do and serve. This can be challenging but we want people to visit so they can experience what someone else has curated for them.”

Originally the venue only had second-hand books available. Early on, Amy brought in books by First Nations and diverse writers, and later introduced a paid library service so people could read while having a drink, or borrow books to take home.

“Most of our books aren’t easily available in traditional public libraries or bookstores, so we decided to make these texts accessible to more people,” Amy said.

“I was not the greatest reader growing up and always felt nervous going into bookstores – most only provided books that were not about my life or people who looked like me. I decided to change what is expected of booksellers, so when people visit us they feel like they’re walking into my living room.”

Creating an inclusive community space

Amy is keen for people to understand that Willows & Wine is a space where non-binary staff and customers are welcome and transphobia, homophobia and racism will not be tolerated.

“I have duty of care to my staff and customers and I don’t want anyone to ever feel unsafe. I wouldn’t want to work in a place that didn’t prioritise people’s wellbeing and I would be doing a disservice if I tolerated bad behaviour,” Amy said.

New beginnings

Amy’s hard work means Willows & Wine is well-placed to begin the next phase of its journey, with help from the City of Melbourne small business grant.

Willows & Wine will become a bespoke training facility for women and non-binary people who aspire to own their own business but don’t have the money to start one from the ground up.

“This will let future business owners try out some of their ideas before taking a big financial leap,” Alice said.

“When starting a business there is a lot of information out there, but no-one ever teaches you how to run things on a day-to-day basis. My hope is that this will become an opportunity to help people feel comfortable working in hospitality and better prepare them.”

A person leaning on a bar

“The City of Melbourne grant has also supported me to set up ‘Making Space’, to enable people to ‘make space’ for interests that are easily ignored in our busy schedules,” Amy said.

“Expect to see affordable events, unique classes and salons that introduce people to new and exciting skills and ideas in an awesome, chilled out library bar setting.”

Another part of the changes ahead will see Amy invite fellow hospitality professional Alice Beasley to take over the reins of manager mid-year.

“Alice and I are part of Femier-Cru, which began in early 2023 to support women and non-binary people in the industry. The group includes business owners, managers, and sommeliers and we hold monthly meetups and support and network with each other,” Amy said.

Alice will bring her expertise as a sommelier to the wine list, which will highlight female winemakers.

Handing over the manager’s role will give Amy time to explore expanding the business, and potentially opening other venues.

“I have so many ideas. Hopefully I can take a step back and start planning more venues which will have the same ethos as Willows & Wine,” Amy said.

One look at the Willows & Wine website will give book lovers and bar-goers alike a feel for this special place, and why it has become so popular with West Melburnians.

Small business grants program

The City of Melbourne supports new and existing traders through small business grants.  

In 2023, we provided 25 grants of up to $20,000 to support innovation and expansion, adding to Melbourne’s vibrancy with new retail, hospitality and creative offerings.

To learn more, visit Sponsorship and grants.

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19 February 2024
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