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Additional design by Tina Tiller

BooksJanuary 6, 2024

Bookarama drama: The online controversy around a popular Christchurch book fair

Additional design by Tina Tiller
Additional design by Tina Tiller

Summer reissue: This year’s Bishopdale Bookarama turned out to be a real page-turner – complete with suspicion, paranoia, secret VIP access and a few very angry whistleblowers.

First published on May 10, 2023.

April’s Bishopdale Burnside Rotary Bookarama has been the biggest annual fundraising event for the community-based charity organisation for nearly two decades. Every year, bright yellow signs promoting Bookarama are plastered on fences across Christchurch, while distinctive yellow-lidded bins sit outside supermarkets, inviting people to donate their unwanted books, CDs and DVDs. 50,000 flyers are dropped and 70,000 donations sifted through before thousands of shoppers flock to the Bishopdale YMCA hall looking for bargains. 

On the day, hundreds of members of the public line up outside the Bishopdale YMCA as early eight o’clock, eager to rifle through the moderately-priced stock (nothing costs over $4). Past Bookaramas have raised over $70,000 for Rotary, allowing the charity to make significant donations to the likes of drug and rehabilitation centre Odyssey House, Canterbury Charitable Hospital Trust and an array of other community groups and youth-related projects. 

So why has the wholesome charity event suddenly been rocked by online drama, with people on Reddit deeming the event “grossly unfair”? Why are punters “profoundly disappointed” and lashing out at “vultures and gougers”, pledging to never attend the event again?

One Reddit user, who wished to be referred to as El, first knew something was amiss when they attended Bookarama in 2022, arriving relatively early on the first day. “When I got in the door I could see there were hardly any military books on the table, which I thought was odd,” they said. “I went over to the craft books and they were all toppled over and there was not really much there. I thought it was strange that they were all messy since I got there early. There were hardly any TV series DVDs, when usually there would be a box full.” 

“I felt confused,” they added. “Something seemed wrong but I could not figure it out.”

When another Bookarama attendee mentioned in passing that secondhand booksellers had already picked over the stock the night before, El felt “completely shocked” by the suggestion of preferential treatment. This year, they felt compelled to uncover the truth. El described visiting the Bishopdale YMCA hall on Bookarama eve to discover dealers leaving with “large hauls” of books. “One had eight banana boxes and a large bag,” they recalled. “I watched for a while, as more dealers left with boxes full of books. They were taking a lot of stock.”

El admitted they “let out a yell” from the darkness of their parked car and even snapped a few photos on their phone as evidence. They also decided, then and there, that they wouldn’t attend the book fair the next day in protest. “After seeing the book dealers having a go first, the magic of the Bookarama was completely ruined for me,” they explained. “I find it unacceptable that anyone would be allowed to buy a single book before the start date of the fair. The poster said it started on April 21st, then April 21st should be the start.”

A bookseller heading to the hall on Bookarama eve, blurred for protection. (Image: Supplied)

Someone who did attend the 2023 Bookarama on April 21st was Sandy – also not her real name – who arrived on the first day around 3pm with her two young children. She had been to previous Bookaramas and although describing an atmosphere of “polite madness” with booksellers rifling through the stock at “furious speed”, she was impressed with the low-cost selection. “I remember there being so many good quality popular children’s books to choose from that I had to sort out my pile and prioritise them because I had so many.” 

This year, Sandy said, Bookarama was a different and much more “dismal” experience. “It looked terrible. There were many gaps between the children’s books,” she recalled. The selection contained more “old and weathered” children’s books than previous years, including many of the same titles she’s seen “gathering dust over the years” in op shops. She only purchased one book, which she said paled in comparison to previous hauls. 

Upon reading El’s post about the early access for secondhand dealers on the Christchurch Reddit page, Sandy thought it was a “ridiculous” move by Bookarama. “If they are asking for donations from the public, then they should be transparent and honest with their processes and earnings,” she said. El agreed. “A lot of trust has been broken… A lot of people have told me they thought their books were going to help others in the community and that was their driving factor for wanting to donate.”

The Bookarama donation bins. (Image: Rotary Facebook)

Bishopdale Rotary President Rodney Finch is well aware of the vocal group of online Bookarama critics, confirming that the club received a “single digit number” of complaint emails from disappointed members of the public. He also acknowledged that he was aware of El’s post on the Christchurch Reddit. “The Rotary Club of Bishopdale Burnside seriously takes on board all negative feedback in the interest of damaging the image of the Rotary Club of Bishopdale Burnside and globally recognised Rotary brand,” he wrote in an email. 

Finch explained that the decision to invite booksellers to Bookarama the night before was not one of preferential treatment, nor any kind of complex conspiracy, but simply a matter of public health and safety. Anyone who has been to a large book sale will know that there is a certain feverishness in the air, and Finch said this only escalated during the Covid era. “When we restricted the number of people that we could have within the venue at any one time, there was a little bit of pushing and shoving outside the doors, but that’s human nature.”

But then there was an incident at Bookarama that caused Rotary to rethink the way they operate. It had become commonplace for secondhand booksellers to attend Bookarama and purchase very large volumes of books, dragging enormous tartan plastic bags around the busy hall. But with such small, crammed aisles and such cumbersome bags, it was only a matter of time until things got gnarly. “We had an incident where a person was knocked to the ground,” Finch said. “We analysed the root cause of the problem, and it was the booksellers.” 

The Rotary Club of Bishopdale Burnside takes matters of health and safety very seriously and are obliged to protect the public, said Finch, so it was decided that something had to change. “To minimise the risk to the public, we offered these booksellers the opportunity to come along the night before to access the books that we have out on display,” he explained. “It has worked in that we now recognise certain booksellers coming in many times during the day, but they’re not dragging around those large, striped plastic bags any more.” 

Bookarama stock, locked and loaded for selling. (Image: Rotary Facebook)

Finch also added that the controversial early access books only represent about 25% of the overall Bookarama stock. “As books are taken, they are replaced by books that we store in shipping containers all weekend,” he said. Given that Rotary put out roughly 40,000 books, CDs and DVDs, Finch assures that there is always fresh, moderately-priced stock on offer for the entirety of Bookarama. “The price of books goes from $1 per children’s book to $4 for certain category hardcover books,” he says. “We always try to display good quality books with good value for money.”

As for the online drama, Finch says that Rotary has already been in touch with the aggrieved members of the public. “In order to dispel myths and innuendos, concerned parties have been communicated with by receiving a copy of our released statement, which outlines the rationale,” he said. Rotary also conducts an in-person survey at Bookarama of around 30-50 attendees for feedback every year. “We have been doing this for years and never had negative feedback before, so what we found strange was the negativeness this year,” Finch said. 

Indeed, over the course of reporting, The Spinoff encountered a general air of negativity, paranoia and suspicion among many who were approached for comment – particularly local secondhand booksellers. None wanted to speak on the record, with some even suggesting that Bookarama critics might actually be moonlighting booksellers who weren’t invited early, looking to air their grievances. Finch wouldn’t be drawn on any hearsay, but did acknowledge that “one has to take all possibilities into consideration” when hearing feedback from the public. 

Conspiracy or not, it’s clear that Bookarama has never seen a drama quite like this before. 

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