Bookseller Jack McConnell (Image: Tina Tiller)
Bookseller Jack McConnell (Image: Tina Tiller)

BooksMay 29, 2024

‘We were genuinely worried they’d wind up in trouble’: More tales from the bookshop floor

Bookseller Jack McConnell (Image: Tina Tiller)
Bookseller Jack McConnell (Image: Tina Tiller)

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

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

Someone came into the store recently looking for books on hunting and foraging in New Zealand. This was not an unusual request by itself, but in the course of our conversation it became quickly apparent that finding the right book might be a matter of life and death. This person seemed heavily unprepared for the North-to-South hike they were planning with a few friends, and we were genuinely worried they’d wind up in trouble. They’d thought a lot about how they were going to film their adventure with drones, but they hadn’t become clear on whether there were bears in the NZ bush or not…

Funniest thing you’ve overheard on the shop floor

I always find it funny when people say the book they’re after isn’t for them, and start to double down on this by trashing whatever it is they’re buying. Whether or not they’re hiding the fact that they’re the one looking for relationship advice, tarot cards, or the latest saucy romance (the usual things people seem embarrassed by). I’m not here to judge. Everyone who works in the store has different tastes too, so there’s always the chance you’re speaking to someone who’s really into the same thing you are.

Best thing about being a bookseller

It’s a lot harder to miss an awesome new release when you work in a bookstore, which helped me get my hands on books like Auē or Greta and Valdin before they became wildly popular and everyone ran out of stock. For similar reasons you’re also more likely to find a fantastic book from a little while ago. This has enriched my reading, and also makes Christmas shopping just a little bit easier.

Worst thing about being a bookseller

The question: “Oh, have you read it?” Don’t get me wrong, I like that people ask, because often I’m showing them something I have read and would love an excuse to talk about. Other times though I feel like I’ve been caught when I have to tell them “I haven’t but I’ve heard really good things about it.” There are a lot of books in the shop, and we try to know enough about them that we can give people some idea of whether they’ll like it, but sometimes this gives them the impression that we’re super-readers who can devour 20 books in a day.

Most requested books

Excitingly people seem increasingly interested in New Zealand authors, especially around this time of year with the Ockham Book Awards and Auckland Writers Festival just been. This means Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton, Audition by Pip Adam, Lioness by Emily Perkins and A Better Place by Stephen Daisley (the books on the fiction shortlist for the Ockhams) have been very popular over the last few months.

The book I wish I’d written

The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox. I thought the plot, world and characters were all masterfully constructed and would love the skill to write something as great as this. I also know my Mum thinks I should write a fantasy epic, so I think she’d be stoked.

Everyone should read

Jane Austen – probably when they’re a teenager, and ideally not for school. I’ve seen so many people hooked on her work once they read it outside of an academic context, who go on to really appreciate fiction (both classic and contemporary). My personal favourite is Persuasion, but I think the mainstay Pride and Prejudice does the trick for most people.

The book I want to be buried with

Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young. This is an awesomely creative collection of personal essays which lives in my head (rent free) and reminds me that life is awkward but also beautiful and interesting. Two pieces which serve similar functions for me that I also wouldn’t mind being buried with are Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia and that one ‘Help Me Hera’ column where Hera Lindsay-Bird writes: “Happiness is fleeting but interestingness is everywhere.”

Favourite bookshop that isn’t your own bookshop

When I lived in Wellington I wasn’t able to walk down Cuba Street without ducking into Pegasus Books. It’s a fantastic secondhand bookstore with the typical cosy atmosphere generated by a huge variety of books crammed into a few small rooms. It also hosts fantastic Friday night poetry readings.

From left to right: the book Jack McConnell wishes he’d written; his fave Austen novel; and the book he’d be buried with.

Encounter with an author

In my first years of uni I wasn’t quite used to seeing authors milling about campus and got a shock when I saw one, as if they were a rare species of bird. One evening while I was walking up Salamanca Road to Kelburn campus I saw Elizabeth Knox walking down the hill toward me and was so surprised I veered sharply into a wall.

The first book I remember reading by myself

The first books I read by myself were a Magic School Bus box set from the Scholastic catalogue we used to get sent home from school with. Soon after I got stuck into my Mum’s old copies of the Narnia books, and remember a distinctly traumatic school morning when on the way out the door I somehow dropped The Silver Chair into a bucket of water.

A book I wish I’d never read

I wish I’d never read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. The book didn’t cause me any kind of harm, it just didn’t click with me. It’s a very popular book which has been very meaningful to a lot of people, so occasionally it’s brough up in conversation and I have to confess to an unlikeable cynical side of myself which didn’t enjoy it. I wish I could tell people I just hadn’t got around to reading it.

Fiction or non-fiction?

I think reading fiction is a deeply wholesome practice which exercises our emotions, providing drama outside the experience of everyday life and more importantly highlighting the emotional drama within it. I’ve seen people brag about only reading non-fiction, as if fiction is superficial or impractical, and I think that’s completely missing the point. Don’t even get me started on how fiction can teach you just as much about someone else’s life as non-fiction can.

Keep going!