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

Progressive Books

Progressive Books

With a letterhead stating 'for all radical literature; agents for Lawrence & Wishart, Kniga (Moscow) and Left Book Club', Auckland's Progressive Books clearly aimed to live up to its reputation of 'having the best stock of radical literature in New Zealand'.73 In its 1937 prospectus the society declared its principal objective to be 'the promotion of the labour movement by the widest possible dissemination of its literature'.74 A leaflet issued in 1939 spelled out more fully the role the Progressive Bookshop should play in the socialist movement:

In most discussions relating to social and political affairs, the conclusion is reached that there is an urgent need for educational work, to prepare people for great changes imminent in society, to give an understanding of underlying forces, and to increase their political consciousness. This letter is addressed to you on the assumption that you are critical of the present order, that you are convinced of the need for social change, and that you are anxious to contribute something to the task of education in social affairs. . . . The principal business of the society is to make available to the public a wide range of books on questions of the day, at the lowest possible price.75

But while it clearly defined itself as a political organisation, the Progressive Book Society represented a similar accommodation of interests and literary tastes to the Co-op Bookshop.

Trade union involvement in the cooperative book movement, or rather, the involvement of trade union officials, was most prominent in Auckland. There continued to be union members and officials on the board of directors of Progressive Books throughout the 1940s. The society also advertised regularly in union journals such as the carpenters' union Borer and Union Record, with an emphasis on the theme of political education and the relationship of the society to the labour movement:

Democracy is a sham! unless the masses of the people have knowledge, and ACT upon that knowledge. Progressive Books ... specialises in books that will help you to understand the world and how to change it.

The Progressive Book Society, Ltd. ... is a workers' co-operative bookshop specialising in books, pamphlets and periodicals with a progressive outlook.76

Later attempts to secure corporate membership of workshops proved unsuccessful, and unions did not purchase shares in the society (as they did in Wellington).

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Borer, October 1937

Borer, October 1937

Nevertheless, the comparatively high profile the society maintained within the union movement may be one reason for the higher percentage of working class shareholders in Auckland. In an analysis of the complete share register for this period, in which the occupations of 70 per cent of shareholders are recorded, 36 per cent were of working class occupation or background, a slighdy greater percentage than in the Christchurch sample, and, as we shall see, significantly greater than in Wellington.77

Working class interest in the shop appears to have been reflected in its clientele in the early years, a custom established initially through the shop's waterfront origins. In the recollection of Eileen Coyne, who worked in the shop as a full-time assistant between 1938 and 1940 and as co-manager during the war years, many of Progressive Books' customers in the late. 1930s were

working class men, activists, possibly members of the Communist Party or Labour Party, who had read, were often very well educated, self-educated men. They were the ones who would come in after work I can remember one watersider who would come in after he'd got his pay and walk out with twenty books under his arm.78

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In these years the shop also had contacts in the public works camps selling its literature. Strong links with the WEA were a distinctive feature of the Auckland society and may have contributed to the shop's apparently stronger working class character. Willis Airey, the society's chairman for some time in the 1940s, was prominent in the WEA; P. Martin-Smith, the Director of Adult Education in Auckland (1938-49), also chaired the society in the early 1940s; and N. M. Richmond was a member of the board.

In Auckland as elsewhere the Communist Party sought to maintain an unobtrusive influence in the bookshop, and Progressive Books advertised regularly in the Party press. George Jackson, who worked at the Otahuhu railway workshops and was Auckland secretary of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee, was one of a number of Party members on the board in this period, and comments that he was there as a Communist Party 'representative'.79 Jack and Doris Basham's successor, Arthur Jackson-Thomas, was also a Party member. He remained manager until 1966, with the exception of a few years' military service. In the war years the shop was managed jointly by

a war-time staff of four lively young women, headed by Mrs. Eileen Coyne, [who] have set a democratic example by running the Bookshop on 'Production Committee' lines. (Duties range from reasoning with recalcitrant Trotskyists to handling a job of paint-work.)80

The Progressive Bookshop also catered to the 'progressive intelligentsia'. Writers such as Frank Sargeson and R.A.K. Mason, and artists and architects such as Clifton Firth and Vernon Brown, were 'regular customers and supporters'.81 So were a significant number of university staff members. Progressive Books attracted a strong academic interest. Professors Anschutz and Sewell, and Willis Airey, remained strong and active supporters, and 18 academic staff were members of the society. While a number of university academics were shareholders in the Christchurch Co-op Book Society there was not, with the exception of Winston Rhodes, the same degree of active involvement there in the setting up and early stages of the society as in Auckland.

The range of interests catered for by Progressive Books and the extension outwards from its political and working class origins, following the same pattern as in Christchurch, is indicated by the diverse range of organisations recorded in the shop's cashbook for the 1940s. These included: various branches of the Communist Party; several trade unions (engineers, sugar workers, drivers, labourers, plasterers and laundry workers); the Remuera branch of the Labour Party; public libraries ranging from Kaitaia to Runanga and Hokitika, and including the Auckland Public Library, the university library and the Country Library Service, all of which were regular customers; a large number of schools (including Auckland Grammar); Whitcombe and Tombs; the Family Planning page 113 Association; the Auckland Sunday School Union; the Army League; and the Maungakiekie Ladies' Golf Club.82 Groups such as the Maungakiekie 'lady golfers' are not likely to have been purchasing the 3d-4d political pamphlets which the shop had regularly advertised in the Workers'Weekly in 1936-7. By the end of the 1940s Progressive Books had 'the reputation as one of the two or three best bookshops in Auckland',83 while retaining its reputation, or notoriety, as 'Basham's Bomb Shop'.

As was the case in Christchurch, economic considerations contributed to the broadening of the range of literature sold by Progressive Books, and at times forced the society to compromise its political principles. The move from Pitt Street to larger premises in Darby Street in 1938 necessitated stocking more general literature to pay the additional rent and wages. Similarly, financial pressure eventually forced the closure of the Progressive Lending Library in 1952, 'a cause of some dispute when it was closed down, as it was seen as one way for lower income folk to get good books.'84 Progressive Books was, however, in better financial health than the Co-op Bookshop, maintaining a stronger trading position throughout this period. Over the first half of the 1940s the shop consistendy made a net annual profit, which reached a low of £26 in the year to March 1945 at a time when all of the shops were feeling the financial burden of maintaining the now ailing Progressive Publishing Society. It made a loss only in the years 1946-7, due in part to a 'reduced demand for books and pamphlets dealing with politics, etc., and social and international affairs',85 but possibly also to debts incurred in the collapse of the publishing venture at the end of 1945.

Again a high demand for progressive literature in the early 1940s substantially boosted sales. Turnover doubled in a single year, sales jumping from £2595 in 1941—60 per cent higher than the figure for Christchurch for that year—to £5512 in the year ending January 1943, contributing to a net profit that year of £160. Still following the pattern of Christchurch, sales dropped slightly over the next three to four years. During the latter half of the 1940s, however, the shop's income increased steadily. Sales increased from £4343 in the 1946-7 financial year to £9327 in the 12 months ending March 1949, while net profit rose to £989 in 1948-9, and £823 the following year. According to Jack Ewen, who joined the board of directors in 1949, the shop was 'doing reasonably well' at the end of the 1940s.86

The negative effects of the limitations and fluctuations of the literary market were in part mitigated in Auckland's case by the society's larger capital base. In September 1943 it had 379 members, and by the end of September 1946, 1728 shares had been subscribed. Over the next two years the capital account was reduced by £600 as the society cleared its losses on the Progressive Publishing Society. At the end of 1949 the share capital account stood at £1168, while the page 114
Progressive Books interior, 193?, with Jack and Diros Basham (H. O. Roth)

Progressive Books interior, 193?, with Jack and Diros Basham (H. O. Roth)

share register records approximately 850 shareholders, compared with around 600 in Christchurch at this time.

Progressive Books' larger membership and potential market can no doubt largely be accounted for by the greater population of the city. More significant factors may be the society's higher, profile in the trade union movement, and a larger and more politically-inclined academic and student population (Auckland University College's roll numbered 1340 in 1938 compared with Canterbury's 1153; in 1945 the respective figures were 2284 and 170787 ). Other external factors influenced the relative fortunes of the shops. Co-op Books was adversely affected by the better quality of Whitcombe and Tombs in Christchurch which drew more of the general market, and also by its less central location which attracted fewer casual customers. Repeated calls were made for the Co-op Bookshop to move to more central premises, while in Auckland the move away from the city centre in later years which was forced by spiralling inner city rents was a significant factor in Progressive Books' eventual closure.

The 'politics versus art' issue was 'always a discussion point' within the management of Progressive Books but there was apparendy little actual conflict. Jack Ewen became involved in the shop in the late 1940s 'as a left-winger student and, at that time, CP member interested primarily in left-wing literature but also page 115 in the broad range of good literature, academic material and NZ books'. In his opinion the society was able to maintain a compromise between the various interests represented on its board:

Broadly speaking the two poles in society thinking were along expected lines: a left-wing workers' bookshop with little reference to other material and a general bookshop with some representation of repectable left material. Generally we went down the middle.88

However, several members recall suspected takeover attempts by the Communist Party or by certain individuals. One long-serving member of the board expressed the opinion that, without the involvement of workers and trade unionists in the early years, 'we would have lost the bookshop'.89 Such suspicions indicate differing and potentially divergent interests within the society.

As Ewen acknowledges, Progressive Books 'never really became a workers' bookshop'.90 Despite a comparatively large working class membership, trade union or working class participation at the level of management consisted of the involvement of trade union officials rather than of 'rank-and-file' workers. At the end of the 1940s the board of directors, in Ewen's assessment, was made up predominantly of 'liberal-left professional and academic' rather than working class people.

73 Letterhead on letter from D. Basham to J. Ferguson, 21 Aug. 1941. WCBS Papers: 3; CBN Jan. 1942 (v.1, n.2), p.3

74 Progressive Books Ltd. Prospectus, 1937

75 Progressive Book Society Ltd. Open letter, 30 Sept. 1939. Roth collection

76 Union Record 15 Apr. 1940 (v.1, n.10), p.7, 20 Dec. 1944 (v.5, n.6), p.3

77 Share register, 1937-1980. Progressive Book Society Ltd. Records. L. Parker. Private collection. The share register records the names of 875 shareholders; of these, the occupations of 517 are known. See above, note 56, for details of the method of analysis used.

78 E. Coyne, interviewed for 'And Baby Makes Three'. New Zealand Family Planning Association for Radio New Zealand. E. Coyne. Private collection

79 G. Jackson. Interview with author, 25 Nov. 1986

80 S. Barton, 'Auckland Progressive Bookshop. Seven Progressive Years', CB, Feb. 1944 (v.1, n.4), p.[6]

81 Ewen. Letter to author, 12 Dec. 1986

82 Cashbook, 1942-9. PBS Records

83 Ewen correspondence

84 Ibid.

85 Bi-annual report and financial statement for the half-year ended Sept. 30th, 1946. Johnny Mitchell Papers

86 Ewen correspondence

87 Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1939, E7, p.2, 1946, E7, p.1

88 Ewen correspondence

89 B. Read. Conversation with author, 1 Dec. 1986

90 Ewen. Interview with author, 26 Nov. 1986