Book & Print in New Zealand : A Guide to Print Culture in Aotearoa
Among the cultural functions of print, bookselling completes a process that begins with printing and continues with publishing. It follows that the histories of these three components are closely related.
In New Zealand the shape of bookselling has been influenced especially by the settlement of the country which began long after the publishing of books and newspapers had been established in the countries of emigration. The impulse to improve their prospects that prompted immigrants to action also involved further education and the early days of settlement were characterised by the proliferation of libraries and a variety of educational institutions. This desire for knowledge and the consequent need for books was formalised to some extent by the Education Act 1877, and by the mid 1880s almost three-quarters of the country's population of about half a million could read and write.
In such an environment bookselling looked to have a good future. Providing material for learning, replacing books that had to be sold to help finance emigration, and offering literary consolation for the isolation from a culture left behind, guaranteed a flourishing trade. From 1850, when Charlotte Godley and her husband rarely encountered the treat of new books, to 1872, when Anthony Trollope on a visit commented on the small towns with libraries, and stated that 'Carlyle, Macaulay and Dickens are certainly better known to small communities in New Zealand than they are to similar congregations of men and women at home', the availability of books had increased rapidly. However, given that in 1890 20% of the population lived in the four main centres and that the remainder were to be found in country settlements, bookselling was for the most part a function of general retail establishments. Similarly, circulating libraries, which usually existed as one facet of a retailer's activity, were a feature of commercial life from the 1860s.
The commercial manifestation of print culture was also found in the development of religious bookshops. This followed naturally from the country's church-sponsored settlements and the evangelical spirit in general. The Presbyterian Bookroom chain, the British and Foreign Bible Society's depots along with Catholic and Methodist bookshops were established and have continued for the most to the present. A Christian Booksellers' Association was formed in 1974.
In addition to bookshops, auctioneering contributed to making books available from the earliest days of settlement. Stock, both new and secondhand, would be ordered from England. In 1877 J.H. Bethune & Co. was established in Wellington and this signified a more specialised approach to auctioneering, servicing not only the general population with overseas publications but also the bibliophile and archival libraries with rare New Zealand volumes and manuscripts.
The latter decades of the 19th century saw the continuing growth of the country's population with particular consequences for the world of print. Following upon the Education Act 1877 the publishing and selling of educational books increased substantially and the rapid extension of the railway system through Julius Vogel's public works programme produced a network of railway station bookstalls. By the end of the century, larger bookselling firms were beginning to feature, the obvious example being Whitcombe & Tombs, which originated in Christchurch and began to buy up other businesses elsewhere in New Zealand. G.H. Bennett and Co. of Palmerston North, established in 1891, and Carthew's bookshop, established in Feilding in 1879, were two notable larger businesses, both incidentally with strong family traditions.
During that part of the 20th century up to the end of World War II, bookselling was characterised by the growth of Whitcombe & Tombs as a national chain, the development of London Bookshops as a small chain which included lending libraries, and the growth of a number of solid independents. This period also saw the rise of political bookshops and their eventual replacement from the 1960s by the emergence of specialist bookshops which represented the later and continuing development in bookselling. These specialisations include women's studies (Kate Sheppard Bookshop, Christchurch, and Women's Bookshop, Auckland), ethnic interests (Pasifika Books, Auckland), children's books (Dorothy Butler, Auckland, among others), technical and medical publications, environmental studies, astrology, alternative life style and new age material. Somewhat more general specialists include Scorpio Books in Christchurch, the various university bookshops—apart from their textbook stock—and Unity Books in Wellington and Auckland. The Australian chain of Dymocks has opened shops in Auckland, Wellington and elsewhere since 1994, challenging the Whitcoulls/London Bookshops virtual monopoly in the general bookshop business.
A crowded window display in the new (1911) premises of bookseller and stationer Joseph Thomas Ward in Victoria Avenue, Wanganui, photographed by Frank J. Denton. Ward had earlier run a circulating library in Taupō Quay premises, established in 1896, but his biography in Volume 3 of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (1996) reveals that his strongest abilities were as an astronomer of some note and also as a violinist. In the early 1990s Wanganui was home to New Zealand's earliest bookshop still trading under its original name: H.I. Jones, also in Victoria Avenue, was established in 1860. (F.J. Denton Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ, reference number G-16860-1/1-)
The wholesaling of New Zealand publications was for a long time mainly in the hands of Whitcombe & Tombs and A.H. & A.W. Reed, but by the 1990s the former (now called Whitcoulls) had ceased wholesaling, and Reeds had been taken over by an international company, although still wholesaling. The place of these two firms pre-eminent since the 1970s had steadily been superseded by a growing number of smaller companies wholesaling a much wider range of material. The wholesale supplies of magazines, as distinct from books, was for many years largely in the hands of Gordon & Gotch. This firm, which had humble beginnings in the Victorian goldfields in the 19th century, became the dominant supplier to both newsagents and booksellers in Australia and later throughout New Zealand. Competition in recent times has broadened the range of titles and added numerous international newspapers. One recent development has been the stocking of magazines (alongside paperbacks) by supermarkets.
There were two other factors that influenced the decision to hold local wholesale stock. The first was import licensing imposed in the 1930s and in place until 1963. Licences set limits to a bookseller's capacity to import books and represented a restriction on his business. New licences and increases to existing licences were difficult to obtain, resulting in wholesalers being turned to more and more. The second factor was that for some years there had been an increasing number of accounts opened by local booksellers with overseas publishers and these were proving to be uneconomic to service.
From this arose closed market operations which required that some titles or imprints be purchased by the bookseller only from a New Zealand wholesaler while other books not necessarily stocked in New Zealand could still be imported. Both means of supply were effected by orders taken from the bookseller by the wholesaler's representative, or by orders initiated by the bookseller. The 1990s has seen the loosening of some of these arrangements and the increasing use of overseas wholesalers by a number of more innovative booksellers. Electronic technology and less costly air freight has provided a global aspect to bookselling not possible until the last few years. Books from virtually anywhere are expected to be supplied quickly, and this has put new demands on both wholesaler and retailer. These changes have also put pressure on market rights, a system whereby an originating publisher, say in the United States, would sell the right to publish a title to a British publisher who would be entitled to sell it in Commonwealth countries without competition from the American edition. This system, which was modified during and after the 1970s because of its restrictiveness and monopoly implications, continues nevertheless to influence book importing.