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.
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.
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