Love Letter to University Book Shop, Dunedin from Eileen Merriman


Go into your local bookshop & write a love letter, and be in to win $500 in Book Tokens! 

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
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 Fallis 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!


What a bookshop has, that a website doesn’t

Reproduced in its entirety from the Otago University Book Shop’s facebook page:

To the customer who, regarding the wonderful changes in our store, said “I don’t know why you bother – you won’t exist within a year”, a right of reply from us. We’re not sure if she thinks it’s because of the online threat, or because of threats from other leisure pursuits; either way here are seven real UBS Otago reasons why we do bother! Feel free to add some of your own – I’m sure my wonderful staff would love the support. (Phillippa Duffy)

1. We love our customers; we ring ambulances for them when they are unwell, and send get well cards after the ambulance has taken them from our shop to hospital. Your online shopping basket can’t do that for you.reading_builds_a_stairway

2. Books power imaginations; imagination powers inventions; inventions power the world.

3. Nothing beats the look of sheer joy on a child’s face when they stand on tiptoes and buy their own self-selected book, with money from grandma. You don’t get that feeling when you click ‘confirm’ on the web.

4. Thirty-two years on I can still remember that exact same experience buying ‘Winter Story’ by Jill Barklem in London Bookshop in Invercargill’s H&J Smith’s. I still have the book, and luckily even now she’s 85, I still have the grandmother. Books and family are inextricably linked. Downloads?… not so much.

5. Pursuits of a bookish 8 year-old: I have read them in a car; I have read them near or far; I have cut, to share, in half; I have read to my pet calf. (With apologies to Dr Seuss.)

6. Our customers find joy in our books and in browsing, particularly those who are really young, really old, really lonely, really blind, or really infirm. The social importance of what we do for some customers is not lost on us.

7. We help source books for people touched by devastating health news, and after some of the inevitable outcomes, books on grief and coping with loss. Other times we are sharing in the birth of a child or grandchild, or other joyous life milestones. Our service comes with a smile, but sometimes support and sympathy.

I’ve marked October 24 2014 in my diary and look forward to re-confirming our existence in a year’s time!

Philippa Duffy, Manager, UBS Otago