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

A Bookshop 'Run by Readers for Readers'

A Bookshop 'Run by Readers for Readers'

The establishment of management committees reflected not only the aim of bringing together a range of progressive opinion in the spirit of Popular Front unity, but also the socialist principles on which the cooperative book movement was founded. Each society was to be run democratically in accordance with its written constitution. Executive committees were elected annually by the shareholders. The manager was responsible to the committee or board of management and the committee in turn to the membership. Labour in the shops, however, was not voluntary. The manager was paid a full-time salary and assistants paid union wage rates. Unlike most consumer cooperatives the book societies did not pay out dividends to members. All profits were to go back into the society. In the familiar phraseology of William Morris, they were to be 'progressive, democratic bookshop[s] run by readers for readers'.27

As an experiment in a cooperative business venture the cooperative book societies can be placed within the context of a broader 'consumers' cooperative movement'. This was a theme which received particular emphasis in the Cooperative Book News (1941-3), newsletter of the Christchurch society, and its successor Co-op Books (1943-5). In several articles by the newsletter's editor, William Robertson, the cooperative book movement is located historically within a tradition of cooperative activity originating with the Rochdale pioneers of the nineteenth century: That broader purpose [of the Co-operative Book page 97 Movement],' Robertson wrote in the first issue of Co-op Books, 'is the extending of the co-operative ideal to every walk of life. That is a great undertaking, and in accepting it we see ourselves as heirs of a mighty co-operative tradition.'28

While Robertson did not identify the book societies as part of an indigenous cooperative tradition, consumer cooperatives had been established in New Zealand since the 1890s. Most were only short-lived, but the cooperative book societies coincided with a dramatic increase in the registration of cooperatives in the period 1935 to 1950. Most of these organisations were retail cooperatives trading in food and other groceries, and did not necessarily share the political beliefs of many of the cooperative book societies' founders. According to Borer, journal of the Auckland carpenters' union, there were approximately 60 retail cooperatives of this kind in existence throughout the country in 1937. In April 1947 an article in the carpenters' Union Record entitled 'Like a Bush-fire' listed nine recendy established cooperatives in Auckland alone. There were a number of efforts in the 1930s and 1940s to coordinate this activity on a national basis.29

The strong emphasis on the cooperative theme in the book society newsletter derived to a large extent from the personal interest of its editor, whom Winston Rhodes describes as 'a freelance enthusiast for Co-operatives, from the West Coast and elsewhere' whose enthusiasm earned him the name 'Co-op Robby'.30 Robertson was an employee of the Country Library Service but spent a number of years in the 1930s and 1940s working for the cause of consumer cooperation. In 1941 he published an account of his efforts in 1938-40 to see a planned steel mining town at Onekaka in Golden Bay established as a wholly cooperative community. This scheme was shelved after the outbreak of war, but between 1945 and 1949 Robertson was again employed full-time on his cooperative mission, in an equally ambitious and ultimately unsuccessful project involving the new state housing settlement in the Hutt Valley. (The history of this development, on which the architect Ernst Plischke was also employed, and of the fraught relations between Robertson and the government ministers and officials involved, is told in a 162-page statement composed by Robertson vindicating his role in the project, but that is another story.)31

The Progressive Publishing Society was to send Robertson as its representative to a Co-operative Conference held in Palmerston North in January 1945, and the Manawatu Co-operative Alliance, one of the largest and the longest surviving of the cooperatives formed in these years, was a shareholder in the Wellington book society. But for the most part the co-op book societies did not have any practical involvement with other consumer cooperatives. They declined to join the New Zealand Federation of Co-operatives which was formed in the 1940s. This, however, was due to the financial outlay involved rather than to any disagreement over the importance of cooperative activity. When one reader page 98 complained that Co-op Books 'overdid the co-operative theme' in its early issues the journal's editorial board endorsed the principle of cooperation and the identity of the book movement as part of the Rochdale tradition.32

Although the book societies did not identify themselves actively, or with quite the degree of missionary fervour shown by 'Co-op Robby', with a broader cooperative movement, they were nevertheless inspired by the same socialist ideals and antipathy to commercial business practices. They expressed a socialist cultural ideal not only by virtue of their own democratic organisation, but as an alternative to a capitalist cultural infrastructure.

In an article printed in Tomorrow on the newly-formed WCBS, W. J. Scott, lecturer in English at Wellington Teachers' Training College and a member of the Modern Books committee, gave an analysis similar to Rhodes' of the destructive impact of the commercial ethic upon culture. Presenting the results of a survey conducted by the society of the literary market in Wellington, Scott accounted for the depressed state of our literary culture as the result of 'mass production in the search for profits' and the rise of the culture 'industry'. He drew a depressing picture of a profit-motivated book trade which was responsible for a deluge of mediocre and less than mediocre reading matter, an almost total absence of any serious literature, and consequently a lowering of the reading level of the public:

To see how bad the position is in Wellington in the literary field, we have only to look around us. In the city and suburbs there are at least 150 shops, possibly 200, selling popular magazines. . . . One such shop (of the popular news stand type), for which subscription figures were obtained, sold in one month two copies of a group of fourteen serious and responsible periodicals like The New Statesman and The Spectator, 150 of a group of ten magazines of the more 'entertaining type' like Punch, John O'London's, Man, Strand, etc., and at least 700 of the True Story-Western Story group. ... In addition to the 150-200 shops selling popular magazines, there must be upwards of 50 profit-seeking lending libraries. . . . These libraries stock mainly contemporary fiction. It is not the best fiction, nor is it the worst. It is mediocre fiction, based on one or both of two staple elements—sex and violence, romance and detection. To get profits, the policy of the libraries is to buy cheaply, to limit the range to books that change hands quickly, and to keep such information about good books as is given in the better periodicals away from their subscribers. The effect is to decrease the sales of good books, lower the level at which the majority of people read and make them less fit to read and understand more serious books dealing realistically or imaginatively with the lives of men.33

In the cooperative book societies the mutual interest of the left and the more culturally-minded intellectual came together in a movement which was inspired page 99 not just by vague socialist principles, but by the more immediate concern to exert some control over a literary market in which serious and progressive literature was a scarce commodity.

The impending wartime restrictions, both practical and political, were to be a major factor contributing to the paucity of 'good' books in this period. But the immediate context for the development of the cooperative book movement was simply that 'there was little opportunity to get political material, and few bookshops'.34 As Scott's figures suggest, New Zealanders' penchant for book-buying, testified to by the country's comparatively high number of bookshops per capita, is not a recent phenomenon. 'New Zealanders are the world's best book buyers', a contributor to Tomorrow observed in 1935.35 But despite the preponderance of outlets for books, it was a trade dominated by newsagents and stationers, who had only a secondary interest in light fiction, and a small number of general but conservative bookshops. In the four main centres the literary market was dominated by Whitcombe and Tombs, who sold everything but left-wing literature. Whitcombe's Wellington branch is remembered by one student of the time as 'dreadful beyond belief.36 In the capital the only shop of any note, and some notoriety, was Carman's on Lambton Quay. Owned by the Methodist lay preacher, pacifist, local historian and cricket enthusiast, A. H. Carman, this sold a diverse range of material, from the occasional socialist publication including the People's Voice, to sporting annuals and New Zealand Truth. It was an agent for the Left Book Club and advertised its left-wing tides in the Industrial Worker, the Workers' Weekly and in Salient, thus catering to some extent for the politically-minded. But Carman's was primarily a newsagent rather than a bookshop, and its largest section was on cricket.

Christchurch bibliophiles were probably the best served with the headquarters there of Whitcombe and Tombs, but while substantially better than its branches in other centres this still did not stock left-wing material. Aucklanders with literary interests patronised two or three general shops in the central city which were similar in content to Whitcombe's, such as Kealy's in Shortland Street, and there was Swallow's in Remuera which sold a small amount of modern literature (its owner was prosecuted in 1934 for selling a copy of Balzac's Droll Stories). In Dunedin, a sympathetically-minded bookseller-stationer, C. Mann, sold the People's Voice and Working Woman, and leased rooms above his High Street shop to the Communist Party in the early 1940s. Otherwise, the principal bookshops in Dunedin at this time were Newbolds and Hyndmann's, both in George Street, and the ubiquitous Whitcombe and Tombs which a manager of Dunedin Modern Books has described as 'violently reactionary'.37

University bookshops had not yet been established; students bought their textbooks mainly from Whitcombe's who offered a 10 per cent student discount. Organisations such as the Communist Party, the Friends of the Soviet page 100 Union or pacifist groups were obliged to obtain and distribute their literature independently, for one could not order left tides through the commercial bookshops. The existing Communist Party or FSU outlets themselves went some way towards meeting the demand for progressive literature, but they sold a narrow range of material, catered to a small clientele and, more importantly, by the late 1930s were barely surviving. Complained a WCBS publicity leaflet in 1938:

All people who read progressive literature have always encountered difficulties in satisfying their needs from the stocks of local commercial booksellers. And what is more, the position is growing steadily worse. During the last twelve months there has been a noticeable tendency to curtail the very meagre range of titles we have been used to, and retail prices, which were always excessive for this class of book, have been further advanced.'38

The socialist ethos of the cooperative book movement was also reflected in the policy of keeping prices low and by the establishment of lending libraries by the Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch shops, as a means of making literature available to all sections of the community. The aim of the movement, in the view of one member, was 'the growth of an intimate relationship between bookseller, books and "people"—let "people" be a wharfie, a university lecturer, a clerk or a carpenter.'39

The societies also envisaged a more active social and cultural role than just selling books. Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch each produced a newsletter which was intended to keep shareholders informed of the progress of the shop and to encourage participation in their society. The most substantial of these was Christchurch's Co-operative Book News, which appeared monthly from December 1941 to June 1943. It was superseded by Co-op Books, a joint newsletter of the four societies which was produced by the Progressive Publishing Society until June 1945. The Co-operative Book News contained book society news, reviews, articles on relevant political and cultural issues, occasional verse and cartoons by Christchurch artist and printer Leo Bensemann (a member of the CCBS management board from 1942 to 1946). The Christchurch society established a social committee, headed by Elsa Flavell, a graduate of English and the university Radical Club. Its proposed activities included play readings, film screenings and a political discussion group. The Co-op Bookshop also hosted exhibitions of art work by Kennaway Henderson and art teacher Len Booth. The Wellington society too had a social committee, organised by Elizabeth McGowan. Modern Books was the venue for meetings and lectures on political and literary topics, such as, 'That worthwhile literature should have a social purpose', 'New Zealand literature', 'Text-books in New Zealand schools', 'Escape literature' and 'America today'. A performance of Waiting for Lefty was page 101 suggested and it was initially intended to open clubrooms. These activities were hoped to establish 'the Society's bookshop as a cultural centre which will give some lead and impetus to progressive thought generally.'40 The constitution of Progressive Books included among the society's objects:

To hold meetings, picnics, camps, parades, displays, concerts, stage performances and the like for the purpose of advertising and/or discussing any literature sold by the Society;

To arrange for addresses whether private or public to be delivered, and to conduct classes, study groups or schools for the study of any subject which the Society or the Board of Management may consider desirable;

and the opening of reading and refreshment rooms.41

The parades, camps and stage performances never eventuated, although Progressive Books did hold dances to help pay the rent. Nevertheless, simply by virtue of being the only outlets for most progressive literature the cooperative bookshops functioned as focal points of a loosely-defined progressive intellectual circle. 'All the left and all the liberals of course paraded through the shop', 'people would stand around talking until pushed out the door'.42 They were places to meet friends and political colleagues and to leave messages. They also provided premises or acted as subscription agencies for a number of progressive political organisations, such as the Rationalist Association & Sunday Freedom League, the Housewives Union, the Women's Food Value League, the FSU and the Left Book Club, while the Christchurch shop also handled subscriptions for Tomorrow and was for a time distribution agent for the Labour Party Standard, and Wellington's Modern Books took the bookings for Unity Theatre. The Cooperative Book News defined the function of the cooperative bookshops in this sense in its description of the Co-op Bookshop as 'our spiritual centre'.43

27 New Zealand Co-operative Book Society, Ltd. 'Meeting Books on New Terms', 1938. Roth collection

28 'Editorial Purposes', CB, Nov. 1943 (v.1, n.1), p.[1]

29 WA. Poole, Co-operative Retailing in New Zealand [Wellington]: NZ Institute of Economic Research, 1969; 'Consumer Cooperatives in Auckland', Borer, June 1937 (v.1, n.6), p.6; 'Like a Bush-fire', Union t Record, 1 Apr. 1947 (v.7, n.9), p.8,1 May 1947 (v.7, n.10), p.6

30 Rhodes. Letter to author, Oct. 1985

31 W. L. Robertson, Co-operative Onekaka. A Challenge to the Labour Movement. [1941]; Final Statement. Wellington: the author, 1950. See also C. Moore, 'Paradise Ignored', Evening Post, 9 Feb. 1991, pp.27-8

32 'Co-op Books and the Co-operative Movement', CB, Jan. 1944 (v.1, n.3), p.3

33 W. J. Scott, 'Books and Readers', Tomorrow, 26 Apr. 1939 (v.5, n.13), pp.405-6

34 A. Jackson-Thomas, quoted in F. Folster, 'Progressive Books', Craccum, 15 Mar. 1976, p.7

35 O. N. Gillespie, 'NZ Authors', Tomorrow, 30 Oct. 1953 (v.2, n.1), p.20

36 J. W. Winchester. Conversation with author, 12 Jan. 1987

37 R.E. Reynolds. Interview with author, 20 Jan. 1987

38 'Meeting Books on New Terms'

39 Jackson-Thomas, 'The Wellington Cooperative Book Society', Tomorrow, 19 July 1939 (v.5, n.19), p.588

40 'A Readers' Bookshop'

41 Rules of the Progressive Book Society Ltd, [1937]. Roth collection

42 Jackson-Thomas. Interview with author, 8 Sept. 1985; E. Coyne. Interview with author, 10 Sept. 1985

43 CBN, June 1942 (v.1, n.6), p.1