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A Popular Vision: The Arts and the Left in New Zealand 1930-1950



In later years the cooperative bookshops lost the monopoly they had enjoyed over a large section of the literary market in the 1940s, as their purpose was partially absorbed by competing bookshops catering to a need which they themselves had been partly responsible for creating. The emergence of specialised bookshops and the improving standard of general bookshops were to be major factors in the increasing financial difficulties they faced.

After recording a net loss of £1170 over the previous 12 months, the Dunedin Co-operative Book Society was wound up on the advice of its auditor in October 1954 and its stock and lease sold to Catholic Supplies Limited. The three other societies survived, and continued to reflect in their membership, the books on their shelves and the debates in their committee meetings, the changing politics of the left in the next 20-30 years. They continued to operate as cooperative organisations (and the WCBS continued to deplore the apathy of its membership), and to identify their major constituency as 'liberals and left-wingers of various political shades'.159 Their broad 'progressive' character helped page 136 them to survive the major splits in the communist movement in the mid 1950s. (In the late 50s Progressive Books decided not to participate with the China Society in its annual picnic as this would compromise its 'united front' policy.) And they continued to confront the economic and political lessons learned in the 1940s. Arthur Jackson-Thomas in his last report as manager of Progressive Books observed in 1966: 'It is the profit we make on general lines which pays the rent and enables us to have a shop for progressive literature'; 15 years later the manager's report read: 'The progressive section of our service can only be maintained with the aid of a more general section of books and magazines.'160 Progressive Books remained the strongest of the three societies financially. In a leaflet from the 1950s it proudly observed that the Progressive Bookshop was 'now named as ranking among the three first bookshops of the Dominion'.161 In the following years it met growing competition, and the changes in political conditions and patterns of cultural consumption, by diversifying into areas such as records and an prints, and by the mid 1970s featured special sections on women's issues, New Zealand books, arts and crafts and race relations, while remaining the principal supplier of socialist literature in Auckland, To a degree, though, the founding principles had been sacrificed in the face of the difficulties of 'running a successful business venture in the heart of the city in the face of cutthroat competition':162 the democratic but inefficient procedure of ordering by committee was abandoned by the mid 60s (as it had been by the Wellington shop as early as 1947).

When Progressive Books finally closed its doors in 1980 it cited among the factors in its decision the general economic climate (inflation and the falling value of the dollar) and a sharp reduction in sales. But the crucial factor in Progressive Books' demise was its difficulty in finding affordable premises. When the Darby Street building was sold in 1975 the shop was given one month's notice and lost $5000 in the shift to Victoria Street. In three more moves over the next seven years increasing commercial rents forced it further from the commercial centre of the city, and the high turnover this brought. At the time it closed it had 400 members, about half the membership of the mid 1940s. Yet the high profile it had maintained since the 1930s as Auckland's principal progressive bookshop is evidenced by the appreciative obituary it received in the New Zealand Herald. 'The shop in its hey-day was well worthwhile; it still supplies avant-garde books not easily found elsewhere', the Herald observed, and expressed its regret at the loss of a shop 'that made a feature of offering, with dignity, political dissent.'163

The Wellington shop was forced to undergo only one shift of premises (to another location in Manners Street), but in 1970 it too cited as a major reason for its closure high rents and the problem of maintaining security of tenure. page 137 Modern Books had struggled through a series of financial crises in the 1960s constantly bemoaning the fact that it was 'drastically under-capitalised'.164 At the beginning of the 60s it was forced to obtain a loan of £500 from Progressive Books. It defaulted on the loan in November 1968 after another period of financial difficulty. In 1966 the shop had made a net loss of £1168 and in 1967 carried forward a debit of £6176. A letter to members and major creditors in 1968 appealed for additional capital. Among the factors it cited as contributing to its problems were a 'pronounced swing' in the market towards paperbacks, which gave a poorer return to the bookseller (a trend also commented on by Progressive Books at this time),165 and increasing specialisation in the book trade. Modern Books' areas of specialisation—foreign language books and serious periodicals— were small and not highly profitable. In early 1969 the decision was taken that the shop was no longer financially viable, and the Wellington Co-operative Book Society was finally wound up in May 1970.

The Christchurch Co-operative Book Society had a longer, but somewhat sorrier, history. While the successful development of Progressive Books clearly demonstrated the need for the shops increasingly to broaden their stock, the Coop Bookshop in its later life narrowed its focus, and lost custom to superior general shops such as Scorpio Books and the University Bookshop. By the 1980s the Co-op Bookshop occupied a small upstairs room in its New Regent Street premises and opened only for a few hours on Friday afternoons. Its large selection of Marxist classics and international communist and socialist literature gave it an old-fashioned appearance, closer, probably, to its 1930s predecessor the International Bookshop than to its 1980 contemporary Progressive Books. It finally closed its doors in 1988.

159 WCBS. Draft letter to major creditors, [nd]. WCBS Papers: 34

160 Manager's report to board, 1 June 1966; notice of AGM, 1980. PBS Records

161 Progressive Book Society Ltd. Leaflet, 195?. PBS Records

162 Annual report, 1968. PBS Records

163 'The Right to Dissent', New Zealand Herald, 8 July 1980, p.6

164 Appeal to members, [1968?]. WCBS Papers: 34

165 Ibid.