Tākitimu sells well in Wairoa but be careful with tractor books in Ashburton, says Lincoln Gould

To be woken by a mobile phone call while climbing into bed at a roadside motel in a small South Island country town was perhaps my first encounter of the wonderful, if a little eccentric, world of New Zealand booksellers.

“I heard you are in town and want to talk to you about bookselling,” said Russell Antiss. How did he know I was in Ashburton? I had not told anyone I was even going through the town. However, I had met Philip King of Canterbury University Bookshop earlier in the day and Philip had spread the world down the line that the new guy from Booksellers NZ was doing a tour. I don’t know whether Philip actually said this, but I suspect he might have told Russell, “He knows absolutely nothing about bookselling, so you might want to put him straight.”

Russell insisted that he would come around to the motel, pick me up and take me to his home for a cognac and a chat; most hospitable and an interesting discussion on the industry, particularly the founding of the Paper Plus Group, ensued.

Actually I had an even stranger, but far less hospitable encounter with the industry when John and Ruth McIntyre of the Children’s Bookshop in Kilbirnie threw a “welcome to the book trade” function at the trade’s traditional Wellington watering hole, the Southern Cross. This particular bookseller, who shall remain nameless, decided he would introduce himself by way of head-butting me and telling me what a shocking fraud I was rorting the trade by way of the structure of book tokens as administered by Booksellers NZ.
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So a good industry to join? “Yeah, nah,” might have been an answer then, but as it has turned out, the last six and half years have been very enjoyable, for many reasons, particularly thanks to my encounters with the wide variety of booksellers throughout New Zealand.

On another tour of bookshops a few years into my time at Booksellers NZ, I pulled into Take Note Wairoa, now independent bookshop The Book Parade, owned by Ange McKay. Okay, it’s small and sells a lot of stuff other than books, but the shop is an important community hub. Asked what book she sells most of, the answer was Tākitimu, written by Tiaka Hikawera Mitira (J. H. Mitchell) and first published by A.H. and A.W Reed in 1972, but still published by and available through Oratia Media. It is a history of the Ngati Kahungunu iwi that recognise Tākitimu as their foundation canoe, and it traces the history of the peoples of the Te Urewera.

Sales from many community bookshops represent special interests of their localities. Paper Plus in Ashburton told me of selling lots of books about tractors. Mind, local specialities are not fully understood sometimes: Paper Plus Support Office noted the higher than usual sales of tractor books in Ashburton so delivered a larger than usual pack of a new title they thought would sell well down there – A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.
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I certainly have not met all the booksellers in the country, but all that I have met, while individualist and sometimes eccentric, have one thing in common – a passion for books and bookselling. To be called a “good bookseller”, especially by a cranky publisher, is a badge of honour.

Bookselling has been tough over the past few years and the industry has lost a number of its characters, such as Jeff Grigor from Chapters and Verses in Timaru, Tim Skinner from Capital Books in Wellington, John Ahradsen from Paper Plus. But it appears the tide has turned for sales and while not up there with at pre-2007 levels, the graph is heading in the right direction.

This coming weekend’s NZ Bookshop Day will be a celebration of bookshops in communities right across the country and a celebration too of the many booksellers who are sticking with the trade primarily for one reason – they love books.

– By Lincoln Gould, CEO of Booksellers NZ

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Book Review: WORK, by Sarah Jane Barnett

cv_workAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

As a fan of Sarah Jane Barnett’s debut collection, A Man Runs Into A Woman, I was excited to read her newest book of poetry, WORK. Like her debut, this collection tells the story of a variety of characters with their own shifting relationships and lives, from the life of an Ethiopian immigrant to that of a polyamorous couple.

There is a striking simplicity about Barnett’s writing, especially in the way she daringly describes the unconventional. Each poem is a snapshot of a certain life, but Barnett does not pass judgement on these lives; she simply presents them for what they are and lets readers grapple with the truth themselves. Although it can be hard at first to relate to circumstances that seem so different, there is a natural quality to these characters’ thoughts and worries that left me feeling empathetic. The longer poems did feel more fulfilling for this reason, since they felt more developed. However, the sheer variation of lives explored also made every experience valid.

Several of these poems almost felt like fantasy in the way they were presented. In one poem, a woman hunts down a bear; at the same time, she recalls the legend of a girl who decided to marry the very same kind of animal she is trying to kill. Despite this wide imaginative scope, these poems are still familiar in the way they are ultimately grounded in the real. The woman also recalls a break-up, thinks of a lost conversation and recalls other scenes in her past. It is this bridging of the gap between the real and the unreal that softens the placement of such fantasy amongst the genuine quality of these lives.

I also enjoyed the range of forms Barnett used to tell these stories, and the way she included fragmented poetry along with sections that bordered on prose. Pieces of fragmented writing allowed an internal look into the sometimes-frantic thought processes of Barnett’s characters. In ‘Running With My Father’, the narrator turns to the rhythm of her run to help her find the appropriate words. The breathlessness of the exercise leaves her language jarred, stating, “long exhale rhyme working into the cords of the body disorder”. These various formats and perspectives brought out a more solid representation of what these characters looked like to others and also, importantly, to themselves.

For me, the title WORK encompasses the way in which these characters attempt to overcome adversity. Work is an inevitable and enduring facet of life, and although this idea of work is not physically manifested in Barnett’s poetry through office tables and manual labour, it is expressed through these characters’ own struggles. In this way, they are navigators of work, trying to align it with their own desires. The silver linings that these characters find despite their struggles, all presented through Barnett’s beautiful language, makes Work a moving portrayal of humanity. Although different, these lives find a common ground in the hope of second chances, and the knowledge that it’s not the end, not quite yet.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

WORK
by Sarah Jane Barnett
Published by Hue & Cry Press
ISBN: 9780473333331