The Women’s Bookshop has been on Ponsonby Road longer than almost any other shop. This year, it turns 30. We talked to owner Carole Beu about the bookshop and its upcoming birthday party.
Since 1999, the Women’s Bookshop been in its same, central spot in Ponsonby. Around it, restaurants, art studios and boutiques rise and fall. The shop’s first premises were opened by Carole Beu on Dominion Road 30 years ago this year. Beu is well-known across the country as a champion of both women and books. She was one of the original minds behind the Auckland Writers’ Festival, and served on its board for eighteen years. She is synonymous with the Women’s Bookshop.
Their story began in 1989, when Feminist magazine Broadsheet needed to move out of a shop and into an office, but didn’t want to lose the space. Beu was shoulder-tapped to take over the lease. “The editor at the time was a friend of mine, Pat Rosier,” Beu tells me. “Pat came to me, put her arm up my back, and said, ‘you’ve got to stop teaching and open a book shop!’”.
Beu was working as an English and drama teacher at a secondary school, and had no experience running a business. “People said I was brave,” she says. “I wasn’t brave at all, I was completely naive.” She didn’t know that a huge percentage of small businesses failed in the first three years.
The Women’s Bookshop, though, has always been more than a small business. “What was created — not with any plan at all — was something much bigger than a bookshop,” she smiles. When the shop moved from Dominion Road to Ponsonby 20 years ago, the customers all pitched in to move. “They turned up with vans and trailers and trucks and cars and they moved the whole shop,” explains Beu. She was as moved as the shop. “I really understood how women had a sense of ownership of the shop.”
New Zealand literary icon Stephanie Johnson says Beu’s work has been vital to women’s writing. “I can’t overstate how important Carole and the Women’s Bookshop have been to me as a reader and a writer for thirty years,” she says. “Carole has become a friend and one I value highly, just as I value her judgement on books and writing.”She has always championed and supported the work of women writers, particularly those of us that are New Zealanders. The bookshop is a hub for Auckland writers of all persuasions – Carole tirelessly hosts book launches and literary events there. It truly is one of my favourite places on earth.”
The community that’s built up around the shop isn’t limited to women, or to stereotypes. They sell books by men, too, and have plenty of male customers. The shop has also been a stalwart supporter of pride festivals, selling tickets to LGBTQ+ events for as long as Hero/Pride has been going on.
“We try and be inclusive,” says Beu of the bookshop’s community. “We have transgender books as well. That’s a difficult issue at the moment.” She’s referring to the discrimination trans people are experiencing from almost every side of the political spectrum, from Trump to TERFs. Beu’s shop is a safe space. “Younger people don’t want to be pigeon-holed as anything. They want to be whatever they choose, and I think that’s great,” she smiles, and thinks back. “You can be what you want to be, which is so different from when I was young.” Coming back to the shop’s feminist origins, Beu sees gender and sexual fluidity as a natural progression of the cause. “It’s all part of, I think, getting rid of a patriarchal society. It’s part of saying we want to deconstruct this and construct something that’s better for everyone, and is inclusive.”
Feminism, riding one of its waves, has come back in fashion. The shop had a large feminist literature section in its Dominion Road site, but that shrunk when they moved. “In the last three or four years, it’s become huge again,” Beu says. “There’s so much wonderful publishing being done, and reclaiming lost women. All these books that talk about women in history and women who’ve invented things and women scientists and all these women who’ve been written out of history.” She grins at me. “We really are on trend at the moment.”
“It takes courage to do what Carole did,” says celebrated author Dame Fiona Kidman. “Setting up a shop that celebrates women’s writing, as she did, and turned into a giant success.” Kidman knows there’s more to Beu than the bookshop. “More than that, she has created spaces where books can be celebrated by many people, of whatever gender, and whether they buy books or not.”
Kidman, along with many other New Zealand authors, looks to Beu as a friend more than a colleague. “I regard Carole as an influential, tireless friend to the bookselling industry, to local writers, to women’s lives, and to me personally. Nothing ever seems too much trouble to her and her absolute belief and commitment to everything she undertakes is an inspiration.”
Celebrating Beu and the Women’s Bookshop is the 30th Birthday Literary Concert. Held at the ASB Waterfront Theatre on the 5th of August and introduced by the legendary Beu herself, this is a concert no book-lover should miss.
Eleven New Zealand women writers will be doing live readings of their work. Allotted only ten minutes each, the writers will choose their own pieces. The star-studded writer’s concert will include: the prolific and talented Kidman, reading one of her poems; actor Fiona Samuel, performing an extract from Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife; and Poet Laureate Dr Selina Tusitala Marsh, who’s guaranteed to blow audiences away.
Other writers performing their own works are Catherine Chidgey, Fiona Farrell, Patricia Grace, Paula Green, Charlotte Grimshaw, Mandy Hager, Stephanie Johnson, and Charlotte Randall.
Beu’s experience with drama shines through in events like this. “I love putting on author events,” she says. She does it often.
Paula Green, renowned poet and children’s author, is excited to celebrate the bookshop’s 30th birthday. “That Carole Beu has supported New Zealand writers of all genres in her shop and at her fabulous Ladies’ LiteraTea events has meant a lot,” she says. “The book tips and conversations, the groups of authors she showcases annually, have inspired me.” Beu and the Women’s Bookshop have inspired Green so much that it’s now in print: “she is one of four women to whom I have dedicated my new book: Wild Honey: Reading NZ Women’s Poetry,” confirms Green.
The concert will stay true to the shop’s founding principle: it will promote works by women, for women, and about women. The need for a space like this still exists. “I still think that what men say and write is taken more seriously,” says Beu. “There’s an underlying cultural bias. So we are still relevant, and we still promote women writers.”
She’s thrilled to see the women she’s worked with on the theatre stage. They represent everything she admires and everything she has fought for. “The fact that Patricia Grace is in her 80s — it’s a great honour to me that she’s coming,” says Beu. “She’s been writing for more than 30 years. I was teaching her short stories before I had this book shop.”
There was a period of time, before the recent resurgence in women’s history, when Beu thought of changing the bookshop’s name. “Over the years, I’ve thought, oh, it’s the people’s bookshop,” she says. “There was a period where I thought the women’s bookshop was an anachronistic name.” She could never change it, though. “We have a whole community. The tide’s turned again, and to be a women’s bookshop is respectable, well-regarded, and, as I said, on-trend.”
You can see Beu’s hard work pay off at the 30th Birthday Concert on August 5th, or just by swinging by 105 Ponsonby Road.
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