Alan Perrott reports on the pressures of running a secondhand bookstore in 2018.
Maud Cahill has owned secondhand bookstore Jason Books in downtown Auckland since 2002. “My parents didn’t read very much,” she says. “But I can’t remember not having books. I’d go to the library every week, search every shelf with children’s books, then go home with a stack.” At school she always signed on as a library helper, and no surprise, her shop looks very much like a well-ordered library.
Her trigger was independence. Books gave her control: “Every choice was my choice. Then I could control what went into my head by plugging into new worlds, learning new things and just imagining a different life.”
This independence thing is very much part of the world of secondhand books. Like dogs, stores increasingly reflect their owners, but like swans the surface order masks the underlying effort.
Everything at Jason’s has one aim: meeting her rent. If she can stick around long enough she hopes more people will understand that the internet and the shrinking range of new books in stores is also shrinking our exposure to new ideas. “When we only look to reinforce our taste and beliefs we lose the opportunity to browse and the opportunity for serendipity, and that’s unfortunate.”
It wasn’t that long ago when you could walk from Karangahape Rd to the waterfront and skip past 16 book shops – new, and secondhand – en route. Unity remains, but Pathfinder, Dymocks and many others have disappeared.
Figure.nz has a handy chart illustrating the shift in New Zealand’s newspaper and book retailing industry from 2001 to 2017 – spoiler, they drop from 762 to 384. How many of those are secondhand book shops is impossible to tell, but you get the drift, and those stats don’t include the cull of the late 90s either.
The major villains of the piece are easy to finger: the bloody old internet, and the dear old op shop. You may have heard about the internet. People buy things on it. As for op shops, how do you compete with a store that gets its product gratis, and is staffed by volunteers? Plus the books are usually $1, $2 tops. Warwick Jordan of Hard to Find told Newsroom he thinks the rise of charity bookshops might spell the death of secondhand book enterprises: “I just wish people would take their books to a bookseller. Ideally, me. I’ll give them money for the books and they can give that to the charities. That way we’re helping the book world, and the charities.”
Despite all the pressures and hardships, secondhand book shops persist – and one of the reasons is down to the simple fact that their owners wish them to.
New and Asnew Books sits inside a dismal arcade off Papakura’s main street. The main attractions are its stock of secondhand books, its curious invention of the word Asnew, and its owner for the past 30 years, Fergus Keen.
Fergus is 72. He has watched rival book shops bloom, implode and shut down. His feelings on the trade are succinct. He says: “I don’t know shit about books.”
He’s a funny guy is Fergus, but press harder and he’ll school you on the book business, his way. For starters, too many sellers stock books in crap condition, they failed to understand the internet-driven collapse of the mid-to-late 90s, and far too many collect books themselves. “That was the first advice I ever got, you can’t be a collector and a seller at the same time.”
At one time there were five new and used book shops in Papakura and at least a dozen secondhand stores scattered between his front door and Otahuhu. Almost all are gone. “I ran them out of business.”
New and Asnew abides, despite no internet presence to speak of – Fergus doesn’t see why he should bother, he doesn’t own a computer. He does almost no advertising, and his pricing is, at best, ad hoc.
As he says, unwanted books keep on walking through his door with each then priced on its merits. “If it’s too high, I don’t care. If it’s too low, I don’t care. I’m an impulse buyer – I just got a lovely book on Samurai swords – I don’t like run-of-the-mill.”
How does a bloke like this stay in the book business? Because he’s only ever seen it as a business. At one time, when it emptied out onto Dress For Less, the dismal arcade in Papakura had guaranteed foot traffic every day. Fergus’s brand got so strong he came this close to being franchised and he was flush enough to buy another arcade space, Boodles Restaurant, which he sold in the early 2000s. The result is that his shop is more than likely rent-free.
Everything that comes into his shop is product that must go out again, one way or another. Nothing ever goes home with him. So, when the boom times came, he bought property instead of ever more books and became the master of his own fate. “I don’t really love the books,” he says. “We tend to overrate them…”
Over in Devonport, Mark Owen of Bookmark Secondhand Books is into his third career after spells in the military and hospital management.
He got into books in 1999 via a Takapuna arcade awaiting demolition. Wary of his shop’s $15,000 annual rent, he struck a deal with his landlord to pay half – on the understanding that he’d leave if someone else came along with the readies.
Things went well and he began eyeing another space further up the arcade. It cost $30,000 per year, but it was bigger and had carpet. With the same landlord, plus a real estate agent willing to gamble, he signed a similar deal. Then with demolition approaching he needed new premises and found a likely spot in Devonport. He was reluctant to go head to head with longtime book merchants, Evergreen, only for them to opt out of the business and sell him their prime location.
End result, a happy bloke, happy in his blokey space.
“Everything felt fine until I signed the lease, then everything’s on the line. It’s a company so my house is a stake here. You can’t just walk away if times get tough.” Such is the price, evidently, of being a book lover, if one who loves the chase a wee bit more.
He dabbles with online sales – Biggles books used to be a massive seller with Americans – and puts huge effort into making his store a destination within a destination. The walls are heavy with old photos, militaria, and sundry object d’art (many for sale). His biggest sellers are children’s books, and he works hard to be on first name terms with his customers.
It has to work because he wants to continue hanging out in a space he’s made his own. “I guess I’m optimistic for the future, and not just because I have skin in the game – it’s the amount of people who come in here and go ‘wow, this is cool’, and even if they don’t buy a book, they might buy something else.’’
The Open Book on Ponsonby Road takes a very different approach. For the past two years it’s been owned by a trio with proper day-jobs who are dedicated to returning the 10-year-old store to an even financial keel.
Says one of the co-owners, Hayden Glass, a consulting economist, “It’s something that we enjoy doing as a tonic to the rest of our lives.” If you’re keen on the details they’re blogging their financial progress – quite the concept – and given their year on year trend and some anticipated steady seas, expect to be in the black for the first time around Christmas.
The key, says Glass, is giving people reasons to spend money. Unfortunately, income volatility means he’s still in the dark as to what works and why, but has rumbled four basic food groups for success: Connect with potential customers; always improve your stock; make your space beautiful, functional and inviting; and run events to give people another reason to walk in.
Fergus Keen, our old friend at New and Asnew in Papakura, has his own formula for success in the secondhand book trade.
“The thing about a stationary model is that once people know where you are, stock just walks in the door,” he says. “Books have to go somewhere, so keep your head down and focus on that.
“I’ve seen guys going out to book fairs and stuff all the time. They drag around these big bags, buy everything, and then try to sell it on Trade Me for nothing. That’s too much like hard work, fuck that. Stay in your shop and deal with what you get. I still reckon it’s a viable system. You just have to be switched on and not love books too much.”
The Spinoff Review of Books literary advisory committee rates 10 of the best secondhand bookstores in New Zealand, from north to south
The Piggery, Walton St, Whangarei
Huge, packed, magnificent.
Hard to Find, Benedict St, Eden Terrace, Auckland
90,000 books; and the story of how it moved from Ohehunga to Eden Terrace is told beautifully, movingly, by Alexia Russell at Newsroom. (Its sister store in Dunedin is equally terrific.)
Dominion Books, Jervois Rd, Herne Bay, Auckland
The best front-window display of any secondhand bookstore anywhere.
The Green Dolphin, St Kevin’s Arcade, K Rd, Auckland
Simply impossible to wander into and not walk out having bought something precious and wonderful.
Browsers, Victoria St, Hamilton
Fantastic selection – and, get this: open till 9:30pm, Wednesday-Sunday nights. 9:30pm!
Ferrets, Cuba St, Wellington
Book Hound, Riddiford St, Newtown, Wellington
Very smart and lots of fun, which may have something to do with the fact it’s run by novelist Annaleese Jochems, author of Baby, which is very smart and lots of fun.
Adventure Books, Harbour St, Oamaru
Many rare things.
Totara Peak Gallery, Omarama
An antique store which features thousands of tightly jammed-in old books.
Dead Souls, Princes St, Dunedin
In a class of its own. Selling right now: a 1939 edition of Mein Kampf, asking price $268.50.
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.