A selection of secondhand book havens in Wellington. (All photos: Claire Mabey)
A selection of secondhand book havens in Wellington. (All photos: Claire Mabey)

BooksJune 10, 2024

Wellington’s secondhand bookshops, ranked and reviewed

A selection of secondhand book havens in Wellington. (All photos: Claire Mabey)
A selection of secondhand book havens in Wellington. (All photos: Claire Mabey)

Claire Mabey assesses the browsing merits of the capital’s secondhand bookstores.

Secondhand bookstores are extremely dangerous places for someone like myself. My house has become so overrun with book piles that if I crafted a hand-painted sign and hung it on the gate it could easily pass for a homely bookshop, only instead of a shop cat you’d have to make do with a shop child. Dangerous, yet as essential as veins.

The first secondhand bookshop I ever loved was in Tauranga, where I grew up. It was called Papyrus and every purchase came with a bright orange bookmark in sturdy cardboard with frayed edges, and the woman who ran the shop was the perfect blend of mysterious and imperious. I then went on to work at the Tauranga branch of Browsers Bookshop (RIP) and was trained in the art of ignoring customers (unless they asked where the UFO section was – our lucrative specialty) while reading Penelope Lively novels and listening to Jacques Brel and Sigur Rós CDs. Best job I ever had.

The constellation of secondhand bookshops in Wellington City runs from Arty Bees on Manners Street, and on up Cuba Street, before it jumps over Mount Cook and the Basin to continue up Riddiford Street in Newtown. Each store has the atmosphere of a polaroid picture from the 70s; ochre-tinted portals into the analogue world. I based my ranking on strict geographical boundaries (the CBD and Newtown which would be criminal to omit given the density of options there); and a methodology that focussed on three characteristics: quirk, curiosity and clarity. Each characteristic has the potential to negate the other (for example: an overabundance of quirk can really cloud clarity) and a ranking will obviously depend on which of those attributes you value most.

One thing that all of the stores have in common is the laid-back disposition of the staff. You can rest assured you won’t be enthusiastically greeted upon entry, nor will you be asked eagerly if there’s anything you can be helped with. Secondhand bookshop owners are friends to introverts and also to the mission of their customers: sustained silent browsing.

It’s important to note from the get-go that none of the below are truly “the bottom” or even “the top”. All of these bookshops are keeping Wellington’s indie books identity alive, and long may they all continue to provide.

7. Rainbow Books, Collectables and Art

Unfortunately the doors to this lovely liminal shop on the outskirts of Newtown have been closed for some time, with books lying faded in the window, rendering it in last place by default. I have memories of an owner and his dog (a lovely golden Labrador) sitting outside, once upon a time, and I hope they are both thriving, wherever they are. I also live in hope that the mystery of Rainbow Books will one day be solved and its books liberated. 

Rainbow Books, Collectibles and Art. Sadly now closed (we think).

6. The Undercurrent

The new kid on the block scores very highly on quirk and curiosity. This underground bookshop situated halfway down Tory Street is also a cafe ($3 bottomless filter coffees!) and venue for live events with an impressive line-up of literature and music. The vibe is distinctly Vaudevillian, with hand-painted signage, velvet couches, dangly lampshades and a piano and double bass in the corner (just add Bing Crosby). I suspect that actual books part will continue to build as the patronage grows (which it surely will): the shelves are well stocked and laid out, but not quite at the intrigue-level of more established bookshops (see below) – not yet, anyway.

Delightful new addition to secondhand bookshops in Wellington: The Undercurrent.

5. Book Haven

Where books, novelty teapots and radical politics meet. Whether it’s an Anarchist badge, or a zine on Noam Chomsky’s Notes on Anarchism, or an orange-spined Penguin edition of a Jane Austen, Book Haven is where you need to go. Long-time Book Haveners will have very fond memories of previous owners Don Hollander and Julie Eberly, who founded the shop in 2003 and presided over it with baking and ready conversation. New owner (as of two years ago) Annemarie Thornby is keeping that spirit well and truly alive with partnerships with The Freedom Shop (suppliers of the political zines and badges), Performance Arcade (with a pop-up Book Haven), and by hosting wedding photos and author events. In her latest blog, Thornby puts the joy of secondhand bookshop ownership like this: “Life in a secondhand bookshop is a never ending adventure of books, people and life.”

The superb online shop means anyone can fossick in Book Haven’s shelves, though you’ll miss the game of spot the teapot.

A collage of Book Haven’s qualities: political zines, badges, and novelty teapots.

4. Arty Bees

With their sweeping window displays, labyrinthine passages and epic children’s book section, Arty Bees is a keystone of the secondhand book trade in Wellington, an iconic store among indie offerings. The second level, up the wee flight of stairs, houses the twin counters where staff sit opposite each other chatting over the divide (a carpeted passageway between them). Arty Bees is where you’ll find the quintessential rare books shelves, with their reddish spines and leathery covers. It’s also stacked with hardcover coffee table books, an impressive sci-fi section, and all the crime novels you could possibly require for a long weekend of nothing but reading. The online shop is impressive and open for those hard-to-source queries, too. 

The lovely Old & Cherished section at Arty Bees; and epic children’s book section (part of).

3. Book Hound

Newtown is the epicentre of secondhand shopping thanks to an abundance of op shops and the presence of Book Hound and Book Haven just mere metres apart. To walk into Book Hound is to step into a sage-coloured book-lined womb where the world outside stops and hours of uninterrupted adventures await peaceably on impeccable shelves. In Book Hound you can really see the books: the shelving style is tidy, logical, clear. There are no excess book piles or stacks: this is a store where spines are out and calm is in. Which is dangerous because you’ll spy many books that you simply must take home. Bonus points for the well appointed hiding couches and chairs; and the cunningly arranged games shelf.

The online store is equally zen, with plenty of alluring titles on the homepage to lure you in. 

The most beautiful of the bookshops: sage green walls, tidy shelves, board games, and hiding couch.

2. The Ferret Bookshop

Nestled in the heart of Cuba Street, just down from Slow Boat Records, The Ferret has an elegant olde worlde feel with its beautiful big table in the middle of the shop, shelf-lined walls, brick and beam interiors and wooden floors. This is not a cluttered store, but one that you can wander (in circular fashion as it’s one large room) and browse with focus. The Ferret signage reminds me of the 90s in Tauranga when there was a ferrets-as-pets trend and you’d often see them being walked downtown on leads, like slippery, fluid dogs.

Bonus point for the proudly displayed LitCrawl T-shirt: a rare edition of the inaugural merch in garish orange from the year 2014. Another bonus point for famous Luddite owner, Terry, who deserves the key to the City for his services to secondhand books.

The excellent central book table display with LitCrawl T-shirt in the background; the wooden floors and brick bits in the walls.

1. Pegasus Books

The labyrinthine Pegasus Books is a clear number one due to the extremely high scores on the quirk and curiosity scales. Hidden inside Left Bank (an absolutely positively Wellington tributary off Cuba Street), the shop cannot be contained by mere architecture. Great tubs and wicker baskets of books spill out onto the bricked footpaths outside, the entranceway is lined with paperbacks, and once inside it feels like you’ve passed into another world: one where the boundaries of physics and gravity are bent in Tardis-like fashion.

Despite my “you do not need, nor can you accommodate, any more books” mantra, I purchased three books at Pegasus while on a harmless photo-taking mission of all seven bookstores. Their children’s book section is second to none, and I found two hard-to-find Dianna Wynne Jones novels, and Gary Paulsen’s iconic child-alone-in-the-wilds novel, Hatchet, which gave Pegasus extra points. A secondhand bookshop, for me, isn’t complete without the presence of a Tarot shelf and esoteric arts section. Pegasus has all of this and more. 

Pegasus books holds just the right amount of mystery and trepidation: it feels like something strange is going to loom up from every corner, that something serendipitous will greet you in the Permaculture section, that you’ll find yourself face to face with an ornament that will spark the idea for the horror screenplay you were born to write. This is the bookshop that I take visitors to, the one you can guarantee you won’t be enthusiastically greeted when you walk in – but that’s all part of the charm. 

Dense, surprising, Tardis-like Pegasus books. Magic.
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