Dear UBS Dunedin
We first made our acquaintance in 1993, when I arrived as a student. Dunedin was smaller than Wellington, older and colder, yet full of possibilities. You were upstairs-and-downstairs then, although I can’t remember what was upstairs, only that you smelt like damp wood. I’d pore over the medical textbooks, dreaming of a place in medical school (I was one of 999 students vying for 160 places, mere plankton in a limitless ocean).
When I was sick of studying (the Krebs cycle, meiosis and mitosis, the anatomy of dogfish), I’d drift into the fiction section. There, I was transported by Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale), enraptured by A S Byatt (Possession), and intoxicated by Donna Tartt (The Secret History).
I didn’t get my place in medical school, not that time. I returned to Dunedin in 1994, and bought textbooks for my Medical Laboratory Science degree – Haematology, Biochemistry, Pathology, Microbiology. The books smelt glossy. My room smelt like mildew. I studied with a hot water bottle on my knees, a blanket wrapped around my shoulders. When I met my future husband, a fellow Med Lab student, I lent him my battered copy of Sidney Sheldon’s If Tomorrow Comes. He said, ‘I think you should read this again’. I did.
Tomorrow came. In December 1996, I received my acceptance letter from Otago Medical School. I returned to your ever-expanding bookstore to buy my coveted textbooks. The Anatomy Atlas was my favourite, with its photographs of grey-brown embalmed bodies. I learned the tortuous path of the cranial nerves, the muscles of the thigh, the neurotransmitters of addiction (dopamine, serotonin, adrenaline).
My love of fiction never waned – Paullina Simons, Wally Lamb, Donna Tartt. I dreamed of writing. I didn’t write. I’d stopped writing in 1992, my last year of high school. Writing was for other people, people who weren’t cramming their brains with lists of medications and causes of anaemia and medical statistics. I thought I’d lost the knack.
But still, I kept reading. I returned to you, again and again. You never failed to disappoint.
While rain streamed down your windows, I lingered over F Scott Fitzgerald and Richard Dawkins and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I bought coloured pens, highlighters, exercise books with clean lines and virgin-white paper. So many books, so little time. I moved to Christchurch, Nelson, Melbourne, Auckland. I played around, dabbled in other bookshops. They weren’t the same. Like a first kiss, you lingered.
Now I return with my children, nine and three years old. They make straight for your children’s section, where we choose a Rick Riordan book for Mini-Me the first and a Charlie and Lola book for Mini-Me the second. I leave them to pore over their delights while I escape into the adult section, fraternising with Haruki Murakami, Charlotte Grimshaw, and David Mitchell.
You are my dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine is activated by nicotine, cocaine, sex and… books. Serotonin makes one happier, calmer and more focused. Your bookshop doesn’t make me more focused. It induces a trance-like state. It sends me back in time. Flats with threadbare carpet and weeping windows, burning couches and black ice, life-changing grades next to a never-to-be-forgotten student ID number (930284), the scents of formaldehyde and sea-salt, the best of times, the worst of times, and through it all, the power of the written word.
It’s twenty-four years since I first set foot in your bookshop. We were both smaller then. One of my proudest moments is the day my mother-in-law, a resident of St Clair, sent me a photo. My debut young adult novel, Pieces of You, was displayed in your children and young adult section. I’d come home. I’ve never really left.
Yours truly and forever,
Eileen Merriman is an award-winning short story and flash fiction writer from New Zealand. Her young adult novel, Pieces of You, was published in May 2017 (Penguin Random House); the manuscript was awarded a mentorship by the New Zealand Society of Authors in 2015. A second YA novel, Catch Me When You Fall, is due for publication on Jan 2nd, 2018.
Otago University Bookshop
The University Book Ship is always heavy with treasure, so wear your best pirate outfit to The University Bookshop in Otago from 10am -4pm, and celebrate books and bookshops with piratical treats in store all day. Pirate Cupcakes! Gold doubloons! Enjoy them… or add them to your hoard. There will be treasure hunting and pirate crafts and you can make your own parrot, or maybe you need a silver hook?
At 10.30am, 12.30am and 2.30pm, they will host pirate story-times and perhaps the odd sea-shanty. See live writers writing at the Captain’s table and you could share a doubloon or two with them, after all, they are creating treasure for us all!