Do bookshops still need a table dedicated to New Zealand books? Claire Mabey weighs up the cases for and against.
Entering a bookstore presents a unique set of perils for those of us who physically cannot leave without a hefty package of new books for the to-be-read (TBR) pile. Unless you’re going in knowing exactly what you’re looking for, and with some self control, the volume of choice in the world of books can be overwhelming, which can sometimes have the odd effect of blurring and dwindling your options rather than sharpening and refining them.
Bookshops are where the world’s thoughts congregate: it’s hard to imagine any other physical location that reflects in such detail the spectrum of human storytelling. This is a complex raft of material to work with and is where the deep thought and debate behind bookshop layout and design becomes integral to customer experience and to the universe of writers and publishers whose work fills the place. Everything about the physical bookshop is designed to make it easy to navigate our way through genre and subject.
Most bookshops begin the curation of an in-store experience from the window displays. Before we even get through the door we’ll be impressed upon by the books behind the glass: often titles by big-name authors who are trending on the bestseller lists and other book-friendly media. At certain times of the year you might find book awards season influences the display, or if there’s a particularly explosive book, that might form the central design.
Once you’re in, it’s the arrangement of shelves, tables, book stands, piles and counter arrangements that will nudge and direct your browsing and, hopefully, buying.
One standard feature of most Aotearoa bookstores is the presence of New Zealand books tables. They’re often front and centre and nowadays, they’re stacked. Before we debate the pros and cons of national book displays, what is it about the tables themselves?
Why tables anyway? A potted history of table v shelf
Jo McColl from Unity Books Auckland explained that one key reason that indie bookshops utilise tables is because they’re cost effective. Many indie book stores find homes in strangely-shaped shops and need to spend money on stock rather than on expensive bespoke shelving. The very first Unity Books shop in Wellington was in a tiny space at the back of a foyer of a huge BNZ building on the corner of Willis St and Lambton Quay. Unity Books founder Alan Preston fitted his store out cheaply, with one central table. When he moved the shop over the road into a long thin space, an ex-delicatessen, the tables followed. Where there were once jars of pickles and condiments there were now shelves books, and where there were once cabinets of cold cuts and slabs of animal there were now tables of books.
The present day Unity Book shops in Wellington and Auckland are an ode to that ex-deli iteration, which is why you’ll still find tables in the middle, shelves around the sides. This was so deliberately done that when Unity expanded to their Auckland store, their designer Paul Miller, who was in Wellington, hired a hall and drew the shape of the Auckland shop on the floor so that he could design the tables to fit comfortably within it.
McColl says that everything about the tables is carefully thought through: from curating them so that people can make discoveries based on their general interests (for example, archaeology books flow on to books about the history of clothing and from there to food histories); to ensuring that there is space for customers to move around and talk with their friends as they browse (easier to do over the height of a table as opposed to between bookshelves).
But it’s what goes on the tables that has been a point of ongoing discussion for years. In many indie bookstores around New Zealand you’ll be greeted by tables with signs for “NZ Fiction” and “NZ Nonfiction”. McColl says they’ve debated whether to integrate New Zealand books, particularly NZ fiction, for years.
Let’s take a look at those arguments.
Cons of the New Zealand books table
We run the risk of accidentally segregating New Zealand books by separating them out from their international contemporaries.
The perception can be that by not placing local titles alongside international contemporaries we run the risk of suggesting that they don’t hold up (when of course, they do); that somehow our books need the special treatment.
A publicist I spoke to is becoming concerned that the splitting out of New Zealand fiction is going too far, to the point of doing a disservice to our writers. An example they gave is that when searching through the children’s section for a particular book, which they didn’t know was a New Zealand title, it wasn’t anywhere to be seen. It was shelved in the New Zealand children’s book section but nowhere else. This suggests that that particular title (and any others like it) are missing out on sales because they’re quarantined to the New Zealand section.
The publicist thinks that we should highlight and display New Zealand fiction but we should be vigilant about integrating New Zealand books more seamlessly among the international titles, too.
As a forthcoming author I can definitely say that I want to see my novel alongside international counterparts. It’s not about needing to be seen beside flash overseas books, more that I see the work as joining a global community of people who are writing books for children. We’re all in conversation with each other.
So, have we moved past the need for a New Zealand fiction section?
Pros of the New Zealand books table
Tourists love and need them! McColl explained that tourists come to the shop specifically hunting for New Zealand books. It’s a hell of a lot easier for them to shoot straight for the NZ books tables than for them to have to hunt through shelves and ferret out the titles they’re looking for. The NZ list of Penguin Classics (titles including Pōtiki by Patricia Grace, The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera, The Denniston Rose by Jenny Pattrick) have been, says McColl, a huge hit with overseas visitors. They’re cheap ($16), small (backpack friendly) and they look cool as a set (the orange spines, the little penguin). The NZ books tables proudly display what our writers have to offer our guests and are the most effective way to sell them what they want.
Findability: the NZ books tables are also for us. It’s just easier to find our own books when they’re proudly displayed right in front of us. We don’t have to go scrabbling through (getting mighty distracted while we’re doing so) the other sections of the shop to find the latest hot poetry collection.
They challenge easy choices: it’s time and brain-space effective to reach for the latest global bestseller. It seems like a safe bet. But this can mean we run the risk contributing to a homogenised publishing industry that struggles to uplift voices that aren’t white, English-speaking and Western. In an ideal world we wouldn’t have to present alternatives with such bold placement. It’s like with film: ideally we would no longer split best actor and actress awards but that runs the risk of the patriarchy dominating all over again. The New Zealand book tables remind us that there are options: the easy reach for the latest international number one doesn’t have to be your lot in books.
They’re a visual reminder of how vibrant our local literary community is. The NZ book tables are heaving. We’re publishing more and more books and the tables are positively groaning under our stories, histories, poetries, creative non-fictions, photobooks and memoirs.
Booksellers I talked to say they are careful to put New Zealand titles in multiple locations: on the NZ tables and also in the genre spot in the shop where their international counterparts live. As long as this is happening there appears to be a healthy argument for keeping tourists happy and directing local book buyers towards our ample produce.
My last name is not Mabey for nothing. I’m firmly an advocate for both sides. We should have NZ books tables for tourists and for ourselves to see how good and plentiful our stuff is. But we absolutely must ensure that our books are also sitting snugly among the international books on offer. Books are a conversation: yes, with ourselves and our national literature, but also with the world’s bookshelves and writers. Our books do well overseas because they’re excellent (think Catherine Chidgey, Becky Manawatu, Eleanor Catton, Keri Hulme, Nalini Singh, Graci Kim, Chloe Gong and many more) and you can find them slotted into bookshelves in far flung places around the world. We should be proud of ourselves at home in all the ways we can: special treatment, and just-like-the-rest, alike.