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Book & Print in New Zealand : A Guide to Print Culture in Aotearoa



So much for a brief history of bookselling to the present. Integral to the trade's development is the enterprise of significant players over the years and the demonstration of their differing talents.

George Whitcombe established his first bookshop (with George Tombs, printer) in Christchurch in 1882 and then purchased existing businesses in Dunedin (1890), Wellington (1894) and Auckland (1916). At one stage he had four branches in Australia. In 1889 he had set up a shop in London for the purpose of keeping in close contact with British publishers. For many years this branch filled orders from Whitcombe's New Zealand shops and despatched books from London until its closure in 1988.

Bertie Whitcombe, the eldest son, took over as managing director in 1917 and remained a driving force of this, the country's first national bookselling chain, until his retirement in the early 1960s. As branches continued to be opened until the 1990s and confirmed the dominant presence of the chain, the foundation laid by George Whitcombe was proving to be especially sound. The Education Act 1877 provided the opportunity for the printing and publishing of texts appropriate to New Zealand conditions. Accordingly, a printing works was established in Christchurch to provide textbooks, school readers and stationery. This material was sold not only in Whitcombe & Tombs shops, but also throughout the country.

The other chain of consequence was that of London Bookshops. This began with Karo Emanuel opening a lending library in Christchurch in 1935. He opened other such libraries in various towns and cities in the years that followed. By the early 1950s book retailing had taken its place alongside the lending libraries and gradually replaced the latter during the 1960s and 1970s. The Emanuel sons, David and Peter, had supervised this conversion and the subsequent opening of branches in large shopping centres. An important development that can be credited to the Emanuels was the importation of remaindered books on a scale not seen before. (Remainders are books sold by publishers much below published price, after the market for the book at full price has been effectively exhausted.)

South's Book Depots was a chain established by Harry South in Wellington in 1932. Branches were opened around the country during the following 20 years as well as 18 branches of the Times Book Club (between 1937 and 1941). In 1948 the club was absorbed into South's Book Depot Ltd. The expansion of the enterprise eventually led to an over-stretching of resources and in 1953 the chain was sold to Whitcombe's. The last shop was closed in 1966.

Among individual booksellers of influence the names of Roy Parsons and Blackwood Paul predominate. Roy Parsons opened his first bookshop in Wellington in 1947 and continued as an active bookseller until his death in 1991. His wish to sell 'good' books coincided with a dearth of such stock in postwar Wellington. His business grew quickly. In spite of having to move premises several times and having to suffer the restrictions of import licences, his stocking of serious, quality reading never faltered, and authors and subjects rarely, if ever, found in other bookshops became available to the reading public on a regular basis. An example was Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy, which sold over 200 copies. Roy Parsons as a bookseller added more than most to the cultural life of his city. But beyond this he contributed to the book trade as a whole through his years as councillor and president of the Booksellers' Association. He was as complete a bookseller as one is likely to find: a literary man, a competent businessman and an effective politician and administrator for the book trade.

Paul's Book Arcade was opened in Hamilton in 1911 by William Paul. His son, Blackwood, joined the business in 1933 to begin his bookselling career in a bookshop that later was considered by two prominent British publishers to be one of the 14 best bookshops in the world. As with Parsons, Paul built up a quality stock. In addition, he had before the war become the principal agent in New Zealand for the socialist Left Book Club. In 1945 he and his wife began publishing, and after 19 years and an impressive list of titles a separate publishing company, Blackwood & Janet Paul, was formed. This was later taken over by the Longman Group. In 1953 a separate educational bookshop was opened in Hamilton, and in 1955 a second bookshop, this time in Auckland. Paul himself died in 1965 and the business, after experiencing financial difficulties, closed in 1972. In his 30 years in the book trade he made a major contribution to the realisation of new standards in bookselling.

There have been many booksellers who have worked hard and, with particular skills, have established strong, effective and sometimes long-lived businesses which have not necessarily required a location in one of the four main centres in order to flourish. Carthew's in Feilding, Bennett's in Palmerston North, Marion Middlemiss in Marton, Hedley's in Masterton and Budden's in Motueka are examples of such bookshops. Whether it has been a family tradition or the result of growing personal goodwill that has made them successful, there has also been a degree of dedication and a clear love of books that has marked them out. City bookshops that have some of these qualities are Dorothy Butler's in Auckland with its influential specialisation in children's books, and Hyndman's in Dunedin trading since 1937 with a pedigree originating in Invercargill in 1906. An early arrival in Dunedin who rose to prominence in the city was Joseph Braithwaite, who opened a small bookshop in 1863, and then, on moving to larger premises in 1883, became Braithwaite's Book Arcade. The business continued until 1928.

University, cooperative, and secondhand bookshops have also made their mark. The University of Otago in Dunedin has a larger place in that city's life than those elsewhere in the country and the University Bookshop reflects this. Opened in the mid 1940s, managed from 1951 by John Griffin and then owned by him from 1956 until its sale to Whitcoulls in 1962, the shop flourished in conjunction with the growth of the universities generally in the 1950s and 1960s. Later working for Whitcoulls, John Griffin was involved in the opening a bookshop at the University of Auckland in 1965 and the reopening of one at the University of Canterbury in 1971. These three university bookshops are owned 50:50 by Whitcoulls and the students. What has characterised these shops and those on other campuses is the increased stockholding, since the 1970s, of books beyond textbook requirements, reflecting the times and new needs.

Secondhand bookshops continue to flourish, sufficient to warrant the publication a few years ago of a national directory booklet—Hugh Norwood, Antiquarian and Secondhand Bookshops (1989 and later editions). There have been, of course, landmark shops. Smith's Bookshop Ltd in Wellington was founded in 1900 and still continues, although since 1987 by mail-order only. Smith's Bookshop (no relation) in Christchurch, the city's oldest, is something of an institution, as was John Summers who opened his own shop in 1958. Dunedin was well served by Newbold's, which opened in 1917 and traded until 1966, for the last 28 years under Dick White. In Auckland, the shops are of more recent vintage, such as Anah Dunsheath's Rare Books established in 1975. Characteristic of their operation is the periodic issue of a catalogue detailing books felt to have value for collectors.

The rise of Fascism and the threat of war during the 1930s had led many people to the political left and one manifestation of their concern was the cooperative book movement. Left-wing bookshops were already in existence selling pamphlets, periodicals and books of a strictly socialist nature, but the increasing sense of crisis brought about the alliance of progressive movements in many countries and produced Popular Front governments which embraced cultural as well as political issues. This situation was expressed in New Zealand by the election of a Labour government in 1935 and the provision of a suitable climate for the emergence of cooperative book societies to replace left-wing bookshops. The Progressive Bookshop opened in Auckland in 1936, followed by the Christchurch Cooperative Book Society in 1938, the Wellington Cooperative Book Society (called Modern Books) in 1939 and Dunedin's Modern Books in 1943. These shops enjoyed a monopoly for some years until changes in the political climate and the emergence of specialised bookshops saw their gradual decline. Having met the needs of their time, Dunedin closed in 1954, Wellington in 1970, Auckland in 1980 and Christchurch in 1988. The one book on political bookshops and the cooperative book movement is Rachel Barrowman, A Popular Vision: The Arts and the Left in New Zealand 1930-1950 (1991).