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Expect the unexpected (Image: Tina Tiller)
Expect the unexpected (Image: Tina Tiller)

BooksMay 4, 2024

Dunedin’s secondhand bookshops, ranked and reviewed

Expect the unexpected (Image: Tina Tiller)
Expect the unexpected (Image: Tina Tiller)

Hera Lindsay Bird reveals the best places in Ōtepoti to score more for your apocalypse-prep book hoard.

Sometimes I get the feeling I’ve been killed in a car crash, and this second half of my life is just the brain unspooling itself, like one of those episodes of a hospital show written during the writers strike. I think this is partly because I’ve moved back to Dunedin after a 10-year hiatus. There’s something strange about revisiting your old life, like stepping into the air-temperature ambience of a dream. 

There are lots of things I miss about the North Island. The food, for a start. My doctor. My mother. But there’s one area in which Dunedin outranks every other city in New Zealand, and that’s its second-hand bookstores. 

I’ve never been much of a book hoarder. Working in the book trade means amassing a vast and unintentional collection of damaged paperbacks and advanced copies of aspiring bestsellers. After moving house for what felt like the thousandth time, I eventually decided to whittle my collection down to beautiful editions of old favourites, and other items of sentimental value. These days, I mostly read on my Kobo, through the Borrowbox library app, or increasingly, listen to audiobooks while gardening, occasionally scrambling to turn down the volume of my vampire thriller when the neighbours walk by at an inopportune narrative moment. But recently I’ve been plagued with thoughts of the end of the world. Whenever I read an article about sharks gnawing at the underwater internet cable, I feel a cool thrill of dread.

I know I should be worried about rising sea levels, or the difficulties inherent in small-scale subsistence farming. But I’ve been increasingly preoccupied by the thought that one day if the power grid goes down, all my carefully archived Agatha Christies will vanish with it, melted into the circuit board of some ancient Nokia. It’s easy to feel the internet is permanent, and our data will persist in the cloud, long after we’re dead and gone. But my friends who are archivists insist the opposite is true. That the internet, on which all our baby photos and personal correspondence are stored, is absurdly precarious, a Library of Alexandria just waiting for someone to strike the match. We’re one unprecedented solar flare away from losing it all for good. 

Since I’ve been back in Dunedin I’ve been slowly building up my book collection, one Agatha Christie at a time, in preparation for the apocalypse. I’ve gotten to know the second-hand book scene well – here are my rankings: 

5. Downtown and Zodiac Book Exchanges

Last, but not least, are the Downtown and Zodiac Book Exchanges. They’re very different stores – the Downtown Book Exchange on Princes Street, leaning more towards romance novels and menopausal jigsaw puzzles, and Zodiac Books in South Dunedin, full of dusty old westerns and police procedurals, but they work on the same principle. You can either buy a book outright (say $5 for an Agatha Christie) or you can read and return it, for a small credit. 

I feel bad putting these bookstores at the bottom of the list because they’re wonderful establishments that fill an important and specific ecological niche. In a way, these are the bookstores of true readers. People who don’t want to spend half an hour faffing around in the stacks, trying to find a first edition Jean Stafford. This kind of bookshop is built for someone who churns through paperbacks like a slavering wolfhound through badly manufactured tennis balls. If you’re looking for the latest Pulitzer winner, you’re unlikely to find it here. What you will find is a veritable treasure trove of weird medical romance novels, forgotten science fiction epics and surprisingly good detective fiction, set in Moroccan tea shops or Argentine pet stores. What these stores lack in literary prestige, they more than make up for by having a vast and remarkable collection of great reads, which you’ve probably never heard of, and will never see again. 

4. Arcadia (Port Chalmers)

I used to go to Arcadia a lot when I lived in Port Chalmers, 10 years ago, because it was my local. It’s a little more expensive than the other second-hand shops, but you can blame the regular cruise ships for inflation. It has a very decent selection of books and is absolutely worth a trip if you’re passing through. 

Gems from the downstairs bookshop at the Vogel Street Hospice shop (Photo: Hera Lindsay Bird)

3. The Vogel Street Hospice’s downstairs bookshop

The Vogel Street Hospice secret downstairs bookshop can’t be found by googling “bookshop”. You simply have to stumble across it, like I did, walking down a long stretch of highway past a wasteland of specialist lighting stores. I have a special love for this bookshop and have to resist ranking it above the others, because of the joy it brings me. I think I like it so much because it has the hectic ambience of a good charity shop, there’s a sense of chaos and discovery I don’t get from browsing at a more carefully curated establishment. The books were probably in order at some point, but these days you’re just as likely to find Dorothy Sayers in the microwave cooking section as you are in crime. There’s also the charming “miscellaneous” section at the bottom of nearly every shelf, presumably because the staff are so overrun by new stock that they don’t have enough time in the day to tidy things away into their appropriate categories.

I love a bookshop like this because it appeals to the scavenger in me, and I always spend twice as long here than anywhere else, because I can’t bear to leave until I’ve scoured every spine. There’s a second enormous room out the back, full of old stock, where nothing costs more than a dollar. There’s no point going to The Secret Downstairs Vogel Street Hospice Bookshop in order to look for something specific because you probably won’t find it. But if you spend enough time there, you’re guaranteed to emerge with something delightful and unexpected. It’s also unbelievably cheap, with most books under $5.

Piles purchased from Dead Souls Books (Photo: Hera Lindsay Bird)

2. Dead Souls Books

Dead Souls on Princess Street is a close second. It’s a little more expensive, but there are some real gems if you’re willing to do a little rummaging. Of all the bookstores in town, it has the best name, and the most conspicuous literary ambience – great towering stacks of vintage children’s hardbacks, stretching up towards the ceiling. It’s the kind of bookshop you’d expect to see in a film about a second-hand bookshop. While the selection isn’t as vast as Hard to Find, I found a lot of rare and beautiful editions there – half-forgotten early 20th century masterpieces about aristocratic women riding camels around the Orient. I wouldn’t go there to get a Dean Koontz, but if you’re in search of rare or beautiful editions of literary classics, this should be your first stop. 

1. Hard to Find Books

The best second-hand bookstore in Dunedin has to be Hard to Find Books. Yes, the same Hard to Find as the one in Auckland, only bigger, and more haunted. There’s a lot to love about it. The ominous, life-sized doll of a bespectacled old man in a rocking chair by the front door. The benevolent ghost who allegedly haunts the back room. The impressive online catalogue, which doesn’t represent the entirety of Hard To Find’s stock, but has an excellent collection of first editions, signed copies and more versions of Brideshead Revisited than you can shake an ivory-handled walking stick at. I was taken on a behind-the-scenes tour of the upper levels of the Dowling Street building, which was once the old Hallenstein’s factory, and was astonished at the vastness of it. The labyrinthine corridors, vast upper stories, and endless hidden rooms were all packed full of books yet to be catalogued and put me strongly in mind of Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. 

I love the online catalogue, because it makes life convenient, and saves you from trawling through the shelves if you need a copy of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes at a moment’s notice. But I’m also glad that the browsable half of the store remains stubbornly offline because it rewards local foot traffic. The prices at Hard to Find are extremely reasonable, ranging between $7 to $13 for a regular vintage paperback, and the selection is probably the widest in town. I get the feeling it’s slightly more picked over than the other bookstores, and you’re less likely to get a rare edition for a bargain, because the booksellers know the value of their stock, and reserve the valuable stuff for their online shop. But if you want to choose between seven different editions of Middlemarch, Hard to Find should be your first stop. 

Wild scenes from Hard to Find Books (Photos: Hera Lindsay Bird)

Honourable mention: The 24 Hour Regent Book Sale 

OK, so it’s not technically a bookshop, it’s more of a natural event, like the yearly flooding of the Savannah or the Alaskan salmon run. And yet once a year, I buy enough books in a single day to keep me afloat for an entire year. This year I showed up at the Regent theatre for the 24-hour Book Sale, only to discover it was neither at the Regent nor 24 hours. I’m sad about the 24-hour part – there aren’t that many people who want to buy a $1 John LeCarre at 3am on a Friday morning, but it was nice to know, for one day of the year, you could if you wanted. 

Despite the unexpected change of venue, I still managed to spend $100 in four hours, which isn’t bad at all, considering none of the books cost more than a dollar.  

Haul from one single outing at the no-longer-24-hour book sale (Photos: Hera Lindsay Bird)
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