Haro Lee of Unity Books Auckland. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Haro Lee of Unity Books Auckland. (Image: Tina Tiller)

BooksJune 19, 2024

‘It kind of reminds me of bartending’: The best and worst of bookselling

Haro Lee of Unity Books Auckland. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Haro Lee of Unity Books Auckland. (Image: Tina Tiller)

Welcome to The Spinoff Bookseller Confessional, in which we get to know Aotearoa’s booksellers. This week: Haro Lee, bookseller at Unity Books Auckland.

The weirdest question you’ve ever been asked on the shop floor

There was a guy who came in and asked if I could recommend any “sexual” books. Didn’t know where to start so asked if he wanted fiction, essays, bio/memoir, etc. He explained it was his mate’s girlfriend’s birthday and he wanted to get her a sexual book that “wasn’t feminist”. He left the store with bell hooks’ All About Love.

Funniest/weirdest thing you’ve overheard on the shop floor

“Where are the masculine titles? How are women supposed to fly planes with their femininity? I can fly a plane.”

Said by man perusing feminism section.

Best thing about being a bookseller

I love a yarn. Tell me what you’re reading right now, but also tell me what’s going on in your life that you need five different Brené Brown books. Working as a bookseller kind of reminds me of bartending: people from all walks of life come through the bookstore asking for titles ranging from British colonialism to weed recipes to Dolly Parton outfits.

Worst thing about being a bookseller

There’s a degree of pretentiousness in any industry – can you imagine what it’s like with books? There’s also a certain kind of author that I’m sure R. F. Kuang’s Yellowface was based on, and an angel loses its wings every time someone buys their books.

The book given to the man looking for the non-feminist ‘sexual book’ for his friend’s girlfriend; bookseller Haro Lee herself; and the book she thinks we all need to read.

Most requested books

Depends on the season. American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin when the Oppenheimer movie came out. Right now it’s the Dune series by Frank Herbert. The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey when it won the 2023 Ockham NZ Book Awards – it’s pretty popular with American tourists as well. Claire Keegan and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius all year round. Japanese authors are really popping off nowadays – Mieko Kawakami, Toshikazu Kawaguchi, Sayaka Murata.

The book I wish I’d written

The other day I read something Katherine Mansfield wrote in her short story ‘Je Ne Parle Pas Français’:

“She wept so strangely. With her eyes shut, with her eyes quite calm except for her quivering eyelids. The tears pearled down her cheeks and she let them fall.”

There are a million different ways you can write about the way someone cries. I just thought this was perfect.

Everyone should read

Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa.

The book I want to be buried with

Bury me with Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s something I can pick at any random page and start rereading, and that’s the power of Adichie’s storytelling. The book delves into subjects such as immigration, Nigerian and American politics and pop culture, mental health, what it means to be black in different parts of the world, with such wit and care and poignancy. At the heart of it, Americanah is a love story between two people who are just trying their best. I think I’ve bought copies for at least 10 different people because the people in my life deserve to read something so damn luscious.

From left to right: a recent, most-requested book; the book that taught Haro Lee that not finishing a novel is OK; the book she’d be buried with.

The book I wish I’d never read

The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway made me realise that you don’t always have to finish a book and that’s OK.

What are you reading right now

I just finished Crystal Hefner’s memoir Only Say Good Things, which tells the story of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy empire from the perspective of his last wife. Currently reading Molly by Blake Butler, an incredibly tender autobiography about the marriage to and suicide of Butler’s wife, the poet Molly Brodak.

Keep going!