Steve Braunias shared this reminiscence of a Mt Maunganui summer spent near Bates’s Bookstore with us, in honour of NZ Bookshop Day.
There was a curious plague of beetles one summer when I was growing up in Mt Maunganui. They appeared in their thousands. They were like black rain. They warmed themselves on pavements, and I crunched over them on the way from my house to the Central Parade shops, where I walked every Monday of my childhood to buy the latest copies of Shoot!, Goal, Tiger, and the Woman’s Weekly at Bates’s Bookstore.
I saw my friend Simon Tulip. I said, “What are they?”
He said, “Beetles.”
I said, “I know that. I mean – what’s going on?”
He said, “I don’t know.”
Their shells were shiny in the bright sun. We picked them up, and inspected their legs writhing in the air. We were standing outside the electric power board building, a long, low kind of bungalow, very stylish with its red brickwork and its venetian blinds which were always drawn. A low electric hum came from deep within.
He said, “Are you going back to school next year?”
I was 16. “Yes,” I said. “Are you?”
“Yeah, course,” he said, “but I just wondered if you were.”
Had I told him about my School Certificate exam results? Or did someone else tell him? How else would he have known? Was that what he was getting at – or did he have the inside track on something else? Was it to do with my home life?
Mt Maunganui was flat as a plain, except for the mountain at the end of the beach. You could see it everywhere. It was the central fact of life in town – that, and the sea, and the wharf. I shielded my eyes from the hot sun and looked towards the mountain. I pretended to take a great deal of interest in it because I wanted to change the subject about whether I was returning to school.
“See you later,” he said.
“Yep,” I said.
I walked around the corner to the shops, and to Bates’s Bookstore. I always felt safe in there, and excited, too, because of the prospect of reading the latest copies of Shoot!, Goal, and Tiger. Sometimes I read my mother’s Woman’s Weekly. It was okay. Shoot! had columns by Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore, Goal had the results, line-ups, and attendance records of every game in England’s four divisions, and Tiger featured the adventures of Roy of the Rovers, the greatest football comic strip of all time.
“Hello, Mr Bates!”, I said.
His name was Alan. I finally plucked up the courage to call him that when I was about 30. He was a lovely man, with black hair combed to the side, and a taste for cardigans. He laughed and joked, and I always thought of him as sophisticated: he sold literature. I liked him more than anyone in Mt Maunganui outside of my family.
I read Tiger on the way home. I crunched over the beetles on the pavement, but I’d forgotten about them. I was in the inky, dramatic world of Roy of the Rovers, courtesy of Mr Bates of Bates’s Bookstore in Central Parade.
Steve Braunias is an award-winning journalist, and the author of many bestselling non-fiction books, including Civilisation: Twenty Places on the Edge of the World (Awa Press), which won Non-fiction Book of the Year at the 2013 NZ Post Book Awards. His most recent book, The Scene of the Crime (HarperCollins NZ) was released into bookshops on 29 October.