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Melissa Oliver’s life in books (Image: Tina Tiller)
Melissa Oliver’s life in books (Image: Tina Tiller)

BooksApril 3, 2024

‘I just can’t keep up’: The best and worst things about selling books for a living

Melissa Oliver’s life in books (Image: Tina Tiller)
Melissa Oliver’s life in books (Image: Tina Tiller)

Welcome to first The Spinoff Bookseller Confessional, in which we get to know Aotearoa’s booksellers. This week: New Zealand book buyer at Unity Books Wellington, Melissa Oliver.

The weirdest question/request you’ve had on the shop floor

I’ve worked in bookselling for about five years now, and I’m sure I’ve had quite a number of things but they don’t really stick around in my brain. I’ve ordered some oddly specific books for people, like Ranui Golf Club of Tawa Flat: 1923 – 1929 by Michael Steer. 

As I was writing this I was asked by a customer if we had nonfiction books … I mean the majority of the shop is nonfiction books. They’d made it all the way to the back of the shop to ask me this which meant they passed all the books and didn’t notice. Honestly I’m impressed.

Funniest thing you’ve overheard on the shop floor

We do a regular as you can get for a bookshop series on our socials called “Overheard at Unity Books”,  which I love curating. The moment right before I post it to our socials when I know our customers are going to love it fills me with excitement. 

A lot of my colleagues hear many more interesting things than me because I’m just not very good at eavesdropping, but I did overhear one of them. Someone asked another if they knew much about Fungi of Aotearoa by Liv Sisson, and the response was “Nah, but I’m assuming it’s about fungi in Aotearoa.”

Best thing about being a bookseller

Getting to recommend and share books you love is the best part of being a bookseller because then it means you get to share your joy and passion with others. My favourite thing is when customers return and tell me they love the book I recommended, or I hear on social media that someone picked up a book because of something we posted. It fills my little bookseller heart with joy that people are loving and enjoying what I or my co-workers recommend. 

Worst thing about being a bookseller

You are always half finishing books! I read a lot each year but I hardly ever finish as much as I start. I really try to finish books but there are always new and interesting things coming in or books you have to read and get a sense of because they are being talked about. Plus all the reading, listening and watching you do around bookselling (i.e: reading The Spinoff, listening to RNZ, Booktok time) – I just can’t keep up.

The number of books I’ve “read” and actually only half finished, that’s another question entirely.

Most requested book/s 

This changes all the time depending on what is popular, what is trending, what is being written and spoken about, who has won any of the big literary prizes, if it’s talked about on RNZ or events are announced locally (like the Trent Dalton Verb event). 

I suppose more generally it’s things like Atomic Habits by James Clear, Claire Keegan, Patrick Radden Keefe, Ryan Holiday, Trent Dalton etc.

The book I wish I’d written

Absolutely anything by Nina Mingya Powles. I love the way she writes poetry and her non-fiction work, particularly her food writing. I can also imagine if she ever wrote fiction it would be incredible and I’d gobble up every word. If you haven’t read anything by Nina Mingya Powles do yourself a favour and try Small Bodies of Water, a beautiful essay collection that weaves memory, travel and nature writing. It’s just so good.  

From left to right: the book Melissa Oliver wishes she’d written; the book we should all read; and the book that haunts her.

Everyone should read

Craven by Jane Arthur. I do gush all the time about this book and am so grateful I was given it by a friend. Craven is this collection of poetry that challenges you and reminds you how strong you actually are. When I first read it I felt like I finally had been given the tool to make sense of my own brain. I’ve now gifted it to so many of my friends because it is like a secret tool for women.

The book I want to be buried with

I have a few books that are taonga to me. One of them would be a signed copy of Neil Gaiman’s Make Good Art speech that is addressed to me and Neil tells me to keep making good art. Every time I feel weary about my creative practice or the state support for arts in Aotearoa I re-read this, look at the inscription, and think “Yes Neil, in spite of everything, I will keep making good art”. 

The book that haunts me

It’s got to be this out of print YA book called Dancing in the Dark by Robyn Bavati and it haunts me two-fold. One, I can’t find myself a copy ANYWHERE because it is out of print and I am desperate. Two, I first read this from my local library and used to issue it out anytime I saw it on the shelf. I remember it was a book that completely changed me and I learnt what it was like to be someone so different from myself for the first time. It is a book that reminds me why I read every time I’m scouring second-hand book shops or online. It’s a good kind of haunting.

The book that made me cry

Auē by Becky Manawatu. I read this in lockdown, gripped and grateful that all I could do with my time was sit on my couch and read. The brothers, their whānau and friends. My heart kept breaking over and over and I cried a lot. I honestly think I’m due for a re-read.

Favourite bookshop that isn’t your own

There are so many great independents across Aotearoa I could say but also so many abroad I’d love to go to/ have visited as well. I’m a big fan of bookstore based tourism.

For now I will say Scorpio Books in Christchurch. I’m so in awe every time I visit. They seem to have just every kind of book you could imagine and every genre and they don’t shy away from genre fiction. I always feel so calm and well looked after when I’m there and able to find my niche guilty pleasure romance books. Plus some of my past bookseller co-workers are working there now too! 

The book I wish would be adapted for film or TV

I’d love to see Gwen & Art are Not in Love by Lex Croucher. The publisher’s tagline is “Heartstopper meets A Knight’s Tale in this queer medieval rom-com YA debut about love, friendship, and being brave enough to change the course of history.”, and I think that does a good job at bite-sizing the vibes. It’s so cute and wholesome and I’d love to see it adapted to a film 😍. It is a book where the characters feel like your best friends. 

From left to right: the book that made Melissa Oliver cry; one of the books she first remembers reading by herself; and the book she’d love to see adapted into film or TV.

The first book I remember reading by myself

Mum used to read me James Herriot stories from this bind up of illustrated short stories on the bookshelf. We also used to find them at charity shops and book sales. I think my earliest memory would be of trying to read those by myself. I was obsessed with animal books as a child so I’m not surprised at all that my other memory I have is tied to Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

What are you reading right now

Too many things! I might just have to list them because it’s a few books long…

  1. I’ve almost finished AMMA by Saraid De Silva
  2. When I Open The Shop by romesh dissanayake
  3. Hey Hun: Sales, Sisterhood, Supremacy & the Other Lies Behind Multilevel Marketing by Emily Lynn Paulson
  4. House of Shadow & Flame by Sarah J Maas 
  5. Come & Get It by Kiley Reid (the Unity Book Club pick)
Keep going!