Wellington's Unity Books on December 14. Madness! Image: Instagram.

Remembering the 80s heyday of New Zealand bookstores

Right now the country’s booksellers are gasping, frantic, knackered – and still dealing politely with the rest of us at our worst. We at the Spinoff thank them for their service and invite booksellers and book-buyers alike to please enjoy this nostalgic hug of an essay by Catherine Robertson. 

From late 1985 to early 1987, my home stretch at university, I worked in the Whitcoulls branch located next to the ground floor lifts in James Smith’s department store, lower Cuba Street, Wellington. My time there was sandwiched between Keri Hulme winning the Booker Prize and Stars and Stripes wiping KZ-7 out of the America’s Cup Challenger final. Unity Books was a year younger than me and next door to Colin Morris Records in Willis Street. Parsons in Lambton Quay was my haven – upstairs you could buy bottomless filter coffee for fifty cents, spoon in heaps of sugar and whipped cream (glory be), and listen to Mike Bungay hold court. There were other independents: Ahradsens, and I seem to remember a women’s bookshop in Courtenay Place that sold green-spined Viragos and copies of Broadsheet. Of the chains, there was London Bookshops but we’d have to wait until 1990 before Nationwide Stationers became Paper Plus, and later still for Dymocks and Borders. Bennetts sold university textbooks on campus, though I tried to buy most of my books second-hand. Every fifty cents saved meant another Parsons caffeinated dessert beverage. I was cash-strapped but greedy.

I made the shift to Whitcoulls after three years working in James Smith’s department store proper. I’d started in Cards and Novelties in 1982, Friday nights, Saturday mornings, full-time over the holidays, one of a core group of student employees. Thirty-seven years on, quite a few of us are still friends.

Catherine Robertson: “a frightening portrait shot of me and my brother taken just before my 21st birthday in 1987”. Plus a portrait of the author as a way older lady. Images: supplied, Russell Kleyn via Penguin.

Retailing wasn’t the ideal job for a shy 16-year-old, but I was also desperate to please, so I learned fast, and by the time I got to Whitcoulls, I could manage even the most fractious customer. I still hated them, but they no longer made me cry in the loos. A guy who became my boyfriend worked at the Whitcoulls before I did. One afternoon, he ran over to the James Smith’s jewellery counter, where I’d unluckily been stationed, and said, “The Tudors came after the Plantagenets, right?” I confirmed this. “Fucker!” He raced back, but it was too late. The customer who’d been convinced of the reverse had gone. Before finding a job in retail, my to-be-boyfriend had worked at McDonalds. After a week, he shot the manager with the special sauce gun and quit. Employment wasn’t his thing.

James Smith’s had an older clientele, including one woman chauffeured from Sprott House retirement home in Karori, who’d sit on a chair and snap her fingers to summon staff members. Many of these customers would pull the old “I’m a personal friend of the Smiths” powerplay, so when I shifted to Whitcoulls, it was my absolute pleasure to inform them that the bookshop was a stand-alone enterprise, not related to or under the command of anyone named Smith. Just because something’s petty doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.

Case in point: a little old lady asked me for recommendations for her 12-year-old grandson. I lifted Tom Sawyer off the shelf, and she said, “Oh, no, nothing by those terrible American writers.” I then suggested she seek out something bracingly British, like RM Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, and sent her all the way to Whitcoulls Lambton Quay to find it, which was mean but, I feel, justified.

Heather was my boss. She gave her employees a lot of autonomy, even when that was possibly ill advised. Over the first summer, I worked with Susan, who was studying ballet in Melbourne. Susan was a human dandelion clock, a wisp with a mass of pale blonde hair. At Christmas, she wreathed herself in tinsel and pirouetted behind the counter. Heather’s eyes misted up. “She’s our precious fairy.” Susan’s preciousness did not stop customers being at their absolute worst, as they took their Christmas stress out on us. Even though books are relatively easy to wrap, Susan and I managed to displease many, many people.

Chris was Heather’s sole full-time employee. He was slightly built, camp and hilarious, always dapper in a waistcoat. He’d take time off to fly to Sydney, and stay awake for three days in a row, partying. His boyfriend was an illustrator, who didn’t seem like the non-stop party kind but then the quiet ones don’t. A book on pig hunting came in. Chris pointed out the bulky bloke on the cover, holding a knife and surrounded by muscular pig dogs. “That’s my brother,” he said.

James Smith corner circa 2014, photo by Curt Smith, via WikiCommons.

Whitcoulls was then as it is now – part bookseller, part stationer. It stocked only popular fiction and the James Smith’s branch didn’t have much of that, favouring non-fiction books people would buy as gifts. I got a staff discount but I could only afford what was in the three-dollar bargain bin. I acquired Sex Tips for Girls by Cynthia Heimel, and a Vogue book of knitting patterns with Andi McDowell on the cover. I regret passing on the book of fancy birthday cakes, which included one with an orgy scene. Little nude figures made of marzipan, all entwined.

Every year, Whitcoulls put out a calendar. It was nothing flasher than a wall planner, but orders would start coming in from early November. This was pre-email, so customers phoned up or popped in. The calendar cost maybe five dollars, which was a total rort, but people prized them above rubies and never quite trusted that you, the young person, had taken their details down correctly. A man who looked like actor Christopher Lloyd at his maddest placed an order at the counter. When I saw him approaching to collect it a few weeks later, I fished it out, ready. The fact I’d remembered his name caused him to adore me from then on, though he was convinced my name was Rose. He called to me once in the street –“Rose! Rose!” I pretended not to hear, ducked through the nearest shop door, which happened to lead into the James Smith’s menswear department, and hid among the polyester suiting and Poco pyjamas. I regret this – he was probably lonely and I should have let him talk to me.

Kevin had Down Syndrome and came into town on Saturday mornings to shoplift his way from the railway station to James Smith’s. Early police intervention meant he didn’t always make it, but if he did, his target was our pink manila folders. Only pink. No other colour. If Kevin saw we were watching, he’d bring out a plastic coin bag and offer to pay. If I was on my own, I’d let him take two folders for free. He’d always try to bargain me up to four, and but take my refusal in good heart.

I only saw one shoplifter at work and I still think about her. I was on my own behind the counter, and noticed her hovering around a rotating stand of paperbacks, glancing across at me nervously. I was about to leave the counter and hover pointedly next to her, when damn me if she didn’t grab a book and run into the nearby open lift, which shut before I could get there. I abandoned my post and ran to the second floor, but no sign. My guess is she’d hightailed it over the bridge that led to the Oaks. She was in her 20s, with dark mid-length curly hair and glasses, wearing a long raincoat and a scarf. If that was you, get in touch and let me know which book you stole.

October 1986, GST came in, and we spent a Sunday re-pricing everything in stock. GST was initially ten percent, so the new prices should have been easy to work out except that one- and two-cent coins were still in circulation, which meant you had round up. Everything in stock included items like single envelopes and pencil sharpeners. It was hours of relentless mental addition and affixing tiny sticky labels. Roger Douglas is to blame for many things and ruining my weekend is one of them.

I graduated with a degree in English Literature. “Why do you want to go to university when you’re just going to get married and have babies?” the manager in charge of all students said. His name was Brian, because what else. I found a full time job at the start of 1987. The group that owned Farmers bought James Smith’s, but they couldn’t save it and it closed in 1993. The building is now the home of Rebel Sport and shoe shops. Whitcoulls bought London Bookshops in 1993, and was in turn bought by WH Smith and most recently by the Pascoes group, which by circular coincidence also bought Farmers when it was going bust. Parsons is gone, as is the women’s bookshop I’m only fairly sure existed. Dymocks and Borders came and went. Ahradsens is a Paper Plus in Johnsonville. Unity is bigger and better than ever, for which all of Wellington is profoundly grateful.

I gave my Vogue knitting pattern book to a friend. I still have my copy of Sex Tips for Girls. Bookshops now stock my own novels. It’s been too long since I drank filter coffee loaded with sugar and whipped cream.

What You Wish For by Catherine Robertson (RHNZ, $38) is available at Unity Books. Be nice. Tell them we say hi. 

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