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

The Christchurch Co-op Bookshop

The Christchurch Co-op Bookshop

The basic issue was addressed directly by members of the Christchurch society at their annual general meeting in 1941, in a debate over the semantics of the president's annual report. Rhodes congratulated the society on its success in the distribution of progressive literature, adding the qualification and challenge that, 'There are still tremendous obstacles to be overcome before the Society can play the part that its members desire and expect it to play in the intellectual life of the community.'45 The statement drew objection from fellow board member Selwyn Devereux, 'a dedicated unionist and communist',46 who proposed an page 103 amendment replacing the phrase 'intellectual life' with 'labour and progressive movement'. Rhodes defended the original wording: the 'progressive and labour movement' was, of course, an important part of the wider intellectual life of the community within which 'we all desire the Co-operative Bookshop to play a more important part', he argued, expressing his own and others' desire that the shop stock not only political literature. He also noted the demand that existed for non-political material, observing that there were many people

who do not like our Bookshop . . . because they want a bookshop which is able to provide them with unlimited quantities of novels, modern essays and verse . . . to satisfy a very discriminating taste in literature and art.

At the same time, Rhodes reaffirmed that

the first important task of the bookshop is to circulate as widely as possible cheaply priced but informative and competently written pamphlets and books on social themes.47

In his report the following year he again focused on the need to maintain a balance between these two 'classes' of literature. Here the emphasis shifted back to the theme of closer relations with the labour movement, which he saw as essential if the society was to achieve its immediate political goal, the building of an effective movement against fascism. He expressed the hope that, 'The time should not be far distant when all workers and their representatives in Christ-church will turn naturally to the Bookshop as a centre for the distribution of radical thought.'48

To the extent that this was an issue within the management board it was one of balance rather than mutually exclusive interests. The intention stated at the society's inaugural meeting was 'to sell all progressive literature as well as most ordinary bookseller lines' (only Douglas Social Credit literature was expressly excluded).49 Debate over where the shop's priorities should lie tended to fluctuate with changes of personality on the board. Comments Rhodes:

those with literary interests had also political interests; and those with political interests were reasonably content as long as the Shop didn't forget what its original aim had been—namely, to stock material of a political nature unobtainable elsewhere.50

And Rhodes' annual reports continued to stress the need to maintain a 'proper balance' between the cheaper political and more expensive cultural and scientific literature. Yet the emphasis, in the early years particularly, was on the society's political objectives and orientation. The Co-operative Book News considered the society to be, first and foremost, a part of the socialist movement, and editorialised on the role it must play in the class struggle:

page 104

The Co-op. Book Societies cannot assume any particular political role, but they are playing an increasingly important part in the political awakening of the people. That must surely be the first pre-requisite for the rise of a powerful political organisation that gives expression to the economic, social and cultural needs of the progressively-minded section of the community.51 '

The shop's first manager, Harold Fenton, stressed that the society's primary responsibility at this time was to capitalise on a strong demand for left-wing literature: 'it is not until every avenue of extending the sale of progressive literature is exhausted will it be possible to say that we have ample funds to give equal consideration to cultural literature.'52

Consistent attempts were made to establish links with trade unions and progressive political organisations, and thus to attract a working class clientele. There were plans to institute standing committees within the Communist Party, Trades Council, the Labour Party's Labour Representation Committee (LRC) and the WEA, and to put up a display case in Trades Hall. Unions were encouraged to give financial support to the society and Labour Party branches were circularised. Large orders were placed in 1942 to extend the range of trade union material. It was also proposed that representatives of the Canterbury Trades Council and the LRC sit ex officio on the editorial committee, but the society's determinedly democratic procedures put paid to this idea: it would contravene the constitution to allow non-members a voice in appointments to the committee. Some degree of reciprocal interest, or perhaps suspicion, from the Labour Party is indicated by a motion passed by the LRC in 1938 that it investigate the personnel, management and literature of the society.

Despite its efforts the society did not succeed in establishing an official or working relationship with the trade union movement. It did, however, maintain links of a less formal kind through the support of individual union officials, such as H. G. Kilpatrick, Frank Langley of the carpenters' union, and John Roberts, the secretary of the Canterbury Clothing Workers' Union and the Canterbury Trades Council. With the Communist Party the society also maintained only an informal relationship through Party members who held positions on its board, ' although a representative of the society sat on the controlling committee of the Communist Party's Unity Centre in 1945, and the society used the centre for occasional functions—to the displeasure of at least one member who asked for a refund of his share in protest.

Those who argued most vociferously for contact with the labour movement, and who identified the distribution of political literature as the society's primary function, did not see it simply as a medium of political education. The larger vision was of a popular culture as defined by Rhodes. Argued William Robertson in the Co-operative Book News:

page 105

it must not be thought that the sale of progressive or radical literature is in any final sense the main or primary task of such Societies. The ultimate task of Cooperative book distribution ... will be the task of satisfying all legitimate needs and desires of the people for the printed word. . . . [The] enduring end is and will remain the enrichment of men's minds with all that is worthwhile in poetry and prose.

In the same issue Selwyn Devereux oudined a more immediate and active cultural programme which envisaged the cooperative book movement as part of a politically-conscious working class culture:

Mass cultural undertakings such as training writers, speakers, critics and artists, are part of the expanding, progressive movement. Popular lectures on literature, art and science could be arranged and would assist the people's struggle and our Society's turnover as well. . . . Radical agitation and propaganda, education and training, cultural organisation as an integral part of a unified people's movement should be the reason for the existence of our Society.53

The Christchurch Co-operative Book Society never attained the 'mass popular appeal' which was 'the wish though scarcely the hope of most of the members'.54 Its membership numbered 250 in October 1942 and by October 1943 had almost doubled to 493; at the end of 1944 there were 562 members. Its rapid growth in these years inspired the hope that its membership would soon be reckoned 'not in hundreds, but in thousands'.55 Notwithstanding such expressions of optimism, by the end of the 1940s it had increased by fewer than another 100. An analysis of available membership records indicates that, although a not insignificant proportion of shareholders were of working class occupation or background, the society was not working class based, nor even a representative population sample in occupational terms. A majority—66 per cent—of the shareholders were of academic, professional or other white-collar occupations, as were a greater proportion—77.5 per cent—of the management board; 32 per cent were skilled, semi-skilled or unskilled workers, compared with 46 per cent of the total male working population at about this time.56

Much less could the society be described as 'an integral part of a unified people's movement'. Although it never lost its progressive political character, over the 1940s there was a 'considerable broadening' of the literature sold by the shop.57 In 1937 the International Bookshop advertised a list of Marxist-Leninist theoretical works, other left-wing books and pamphlets such as John Reed's Ten Days That Shook the World and R. Palme Dutt's Fascism and Social Revolution, and left-wing periodicals. There were only a few titles of a 'literary' nature: a book on Soviet theatre, children's books by Geoffrey Trease, and Jean Devanny's novel about striking sugar workers in Australia, Sugar Heaven.58 The booklist printed page 106 in the first issue of the Co-operative Book News in 1941 retained the emphasis on literature about the Soviet Union and general left tides but included a wider range of non-fiction works, such as HMS Beagle in South America, Great Sons of Greece and Great Sons of Rome, In Search of Wild Flowers and How a Baby is Born, a wider range of periodicals including the New Zealand Woman s Weekly, the New Zealand Listener and Picture Post, more children's books, and a greater number of fiction and poetry tides, although these were still mostly of a 'progressive' nature (Maxim Gorki, Ernest Hemingway and Walt Whitman). In April 1944 the 'cultural' list included T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, Virginia Woolf, Siegfried Sassoon and Charles Dickens as well as W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Karel Capek. The June 1944 list advertised a special music section and 'The World's Master Series' of art reproductions. As early as 1940 it had been agreed that the board of management should consider collaboration with the Wellington society in order to increase its stocks of arts, literature and science material, while in 1942 the Co-operative Book News noted: 'A selection of the best books from Everyman's Library as well as a wide range of the best works of fiction, poetry, etc., should enable us to reach a new public.'59 In 1949 it was recommended that the society stock a greater number of works 'of sociology and of human thought and endeavour generally', noting the success of these in Wellington and Dunedin.60

The diversity of interests of the society's membership was recognised with the establishment of a Book Ordering Committee intended to represent both 'sides' of opinion. Ordering had previously been the responsibility of the manager, subject to the direction of the board of management as to the apportioning of funds; now committee members put forward individual recommendations for discussion at a weekly meeting, a more time consuming but suitably democratic process. The expanding range of tides on the Co-op Bookshop's shelves also reflected a wider demand. The shop attracted large and steady orders from schools, the Canterbury Public Library and eventually the university library. The manager from September 1944, Cyril Walter,61 a keen sports enthusiast, was able to build up a substantial business with school libraries through his sporting contacts with teachers. Co-op Books was one of four bookshops patronised by the Canterbury Public Library, which purchased mostly serious literature and children's books there. It established a reputation as a reliable and efficient importer, of either regular bulk orders or individual titles. 'We made a point of trying to obtain books for anybody from anywhere in the world', a service other shops did not provide,62

Advertisements were placed to reach as wide an audience as possible. The shop advertised in left-wing and labour publications such as the Grey River Argus, the Industrial Worker, In Print, the Standard and John A. Lees Weekly, but also in the Radio Record and New Zealand Listener, New Zealand Truth and student page 107 publications. It sought to increase its sales among the university population further by offering a 10 per cent discount to students in competition with Whitcombe and Tombs. A more novel form of promotion, perhaps with the aim of attracting a rural readership, was a marquee run in conjunction with the Society for Closer Relations with Russia at the Agricultural and Pastoral Show in 1941. They also approached the WEA about the distribution of Co-op Books to its members. Other avenues considered for the distribution of the newsletter were the Society of Arts, a list of teachers supplied by the Education Board, the Addington railway workshops and the Young People's Club (a junior Communist Party organisation).

Just who did comprise the day-to-day clientele of the shop is impossible to assess accurately. In Winston Rhodes' recollection they 'were of all kinds— socialists and workers, university students and academics,- professional men and women, teachers and omnivorous readers.'63 Arguably, though, as the shop expanded into the areas of literature, arts, sociology and psychology, it would have appealed to the 'discriminating tastes in literature and art' referred to by Rhodes in his 1941 annual report rather than to Christchurch's working class population.

Not all members of the management board welcomed the custom of schools and libraries and the change of image this represented. At the annual general meeting in 1947 Selwyn Devereux voiced his concern that the society's initial purpose of selling political literature was becoming submerged beneath the volume of general literature now stocked. But the kinds of literature the shop sold and the demand to which it catered were also influenced by more pragmatic considerations than political principles or cultural ideals. Like all of the cooperative book societies, Co-op Books was always constrained by insufficient capital and the consequent need to maintain a high turnover. Ironically, the co-op book societies were hampered by their own socialist principles and by the very factors—market demand and the need to make profits—in antipathy to which they had been established.

With its major source of capital being shares, which were payable by instalment, and a membership numbering in hundreds not thousands, Co-op Books' opportunity for capital expansion was always limited. Socialist principles precluded the marking up of substantial profits on sales. These constraints, combined with a 10 per cent discount on all purchases by members, meant that the shop required a very high turnover to remain solvent, as it lacked sufficient capital to carry large stocks of slow-selling material. The Co-op Bookshop was spared one major financial burden which was to plague the Auckland and Wellington societies: ever-increasing inner city rents. With the help of a bank overdraft and loans from members it was able to buy premises in New Regent Street, next door to those it already leased, when the entire block was put on the page 108 market in late 1945. Nevertheless, the margin remained a fine one; the shop's limited capital base left it vulnerable to fluctuations in demand or to the stresses of unforeseen capital ouday.

Within three months of the provisional committee's appointment in 1938 the shop's turnover doubled, but it made a net loss of £16 in its first year of trading, followed by profits of £90 and a modest £43 in the next two years. However, 1942-3 saw a significant growth in sales. February 1942 was 'our best month since the Shop first opened' and in August 1942 receipts again reached 'an all-time high'.64 Monthly turnover had increased from £50 in September 1938 to £448 in August 1942, and sales increased from £1660 in the year ending October 1941 to £2595 in the 12 months to October 1942. Twelve hundred copies of the Co-operative Book News were distributed in that year. Urgent cables were sent to Moscow, London, Sydney and Melbourne for supplies of'basic Socialist literature'.The society had also built up a substantial mail-order business, which was 'growing so rapidly that difficulties are now being experienced in meeting the demand for all classes of progressive and cultural literature.'65 In 1941 the shop was distributing its literature to 850 outlets nationwide. The manager offered free ice-creams to volunteers willing to work in the shop one or two evenings a week—to ensure 'that no individual's generator is burnt out on account of the revolutionary tempo set by the Stakhanovites of the group.'66

The dramatic increase in sales in the early 1940s coincided with a rapid growth in the society's membership, and reflected a strong interest in left-wing literature in these years as well as an unusually high demand for books generally. The Associated Booksellers of New Zealand observed at its annual conference in January 1943 that the previous year had been 'a phenomenal one for bookselling'.67 The Co-operative Book News regularly commented on the 'highly favourable conditions for the rapid development of progressive thought' and 'great demand for books and pamphlets about the Soviet Union'.68 This was the time of Stalingrad and the victories of the Red Army, a time of optimism and enthusiasm on the left, and, for a while, of comparative tolerance within the wider community towards its radical fringe. A 'heightened public interest in the Soviet Union, socialism and social and political problems generally' was also observed by the other co-op book societies.69 The political climate seemed particularly propitious for the success of a radical bookshop.

However, this did not bestow financial security. Sales remained steady but a small net profit in 1941-2 turned to losses of £115 and £276 in the two succeeding years. In the years 1944-6 Co-op Books' financial health was precarious. 'We were in business in a very small way. We even sold toys at one stage' (over Christmas 1944-5, and with the exception of war toys).70 In the last quarter of 1944 the shop faced an 'extremely serious' financial situation and an emergency committee was established. The crisis was due partly to an increase in overhead expenses incurred in an expansion of the shop's premises at the end of 1943; more page 109 importantly, to sales falling 'far below budget'; and also, in the opinion of the incoming manager, to poor accounting. Remedial measures taken included a survey of members asking for their preferences as to the type of literature to be ordered and a proposal that

six detective novels be purchased immediately as an experiment and placed in the window of the shop to determine the possibility of stocking such lines for a catch trade as an additional source of income and as a means of increasing sales.71

Presumably the latter idea met with some success, for when in 1946 the society again found itself in serious financial trouble, measures were taken to broaden the shop's appeal with 'the purchase of certain lines of stock of a popular nature in the realms of periodicals, magazines and cheap weekly and fortnightly fictional lines' (while at the same time a deputation was sent to the LRC, Federation of Labour and Communist Party to discuss the shop's plight).72 The perennial problem of how to attract more customers and increase turnover tended to focus the issue of political principles. Evidendy, there was not sufficient demand for progressive literature to maintain both political purity and a sufficiently high cash turnover.

In other respects too the socialist ethos of cooperative bookselling came into conflict with economic reality. At the end of 1944 the board of management voted to hold a referendum of members on the question of replacing the 10 per cent members' discount with an annual dividend. The proposal was vetoed by the other societies but it was raised twice more in the next two years. The CCBS also considered abandoning the share register and replacing it with an annual subscription but this too was rejected as contrary to the raison d'etre of the movement.

Towards the end of the 1940s the Christchurch Co-operative Book Society experienced a marked downturn in membership and deterioration of its financial situation. By 1947 new members numbered on average one or two a month, indicating a general slackening of interest which by the last years of the decade was also reflected in less frequent and poorly attended management board meetings. The publication of the monthly newsletter was reduced to three times a year in 1948. Free ice-creams were no longer on offer.

The political climate of the late 1930s which had produced the bookshop, and the high demand for left-wing literature experienced in the early 1940s, were not sustained in the post-war years. In these years the substantial sales to schools and libraries carried the less profitable political material (through high turnover rather than through substantial gross profits, however; an agreement between the booksellers' association and the New Zealand Library Association meant that discounts were given to all schools and public libraries). Short-term expedients such as detective novels and other light fiction further testify to a page 110 limited demand for both left-wing and 'high cultural' literature. Had the bookshop maintained the narrow focus on left-wing political material advocated by some of its critics, it almost certainly would not have survived.

45 Chairman's report, Oct. 1941. CCBS minutes

46 Rhodes interview

47 'An Objection to the Bookshop', CBN, Feb. 1942 (v.1, n.3), p.3

48 Chairman's report, Oct. 1941-Oct. 1942. CCBS minutes

49 Minutes of first general meeting, 31 Oct. 1938

50 Rhodes correspondence

51 H. E. Fenton, 'Why Not Now?', CBN, Oct. 1942 (v.1, n.10o), p.1

52 Fenton, 'Co-operation—for what?', CBN, June 1942 (v.1, n.6), p.2

53 Robertson, 'What is the Purpose of a Cooperative Book Society?', CBN, Apr. 1942 (v.1, n.4), p.4; S. Devereux, 'The Work of Our Society', ibid., p.6

54 Rhodes interview

55 CBN, Jan. 1943 (v.1, n.2), p.1

56 In the absence of complete membership records, this occupational analysis is based on lists of new members printed in the society's minutes, 1938-49. Of the 240 names listed, the occupations of 116 have been determined. The categories used in this analysis are derived from the Elley and Irving socio-economic index (New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 7, Nov. 1972, pp.153-67), as used by D. Pearson in Johnsonville. Continuity and Change in a New Zealand Township. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1980. The comparative figure of 46%, being the percentage of the total male working population in manual occupations at 1936, is taken from D. Pearson and D. Thorns, Eclipse of Equality. Social Stratification in New Zealand Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1983, p.46

57 Rhodes correspondence

58 International Bookshop. Booklist, 18 Jan. 1937. Roth collection

59 'Shop Notes', CBN, Apr. 1942 (v.1, n.4), p.5

60 CCBS minutes, 24 Feb. 1949

61 Fenton had resigned from the management of the Co-op Bookshop at the end of 1942 to become manager of the Progressive Publishing Society in Wellington. Co-op Books was run by A.S. (Nan) Dann (formerly shop assistant), with Eva Munz as assistant, until Walter's appointment in 1944.

62 C. V. Walter. Interview with author, 1 Feb. 1987

63 Rhodes correspondence

64 CBN Apr. 1942 (v.1, n.4), p.5, Oct. 1942 (v.1, n.10), p.1

65 Ibid, May 1942 (v.1, n.5), pp.5, 8

66 Ibid.

67 Associated Booksellers of New Zealand. Minutes of annual conference, 27 Jan. 1943. Associated Booksellers of New Zealand. Minute book, 1939-59. Ms y 1076. Alexander Turnbull Library

68 CBN, May 1942 (v.1, n.5), p.1; chairman's report, Oct. 1941

69 'Big News for Progressive Books'

70 Walter interview

71 Walter interview; CCBS minutes, 11 Dec. 1944

72 CCBS minutes, 21 May 1946