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




Among the cultural functions of print, bookselling completes a process that begins with printing and continues with publishing. It follows that the histories of these three components are closely related.

In New Zealand the shape of bookselling has been influenced especially by the settlement of the country which began long after the publishing of books and newspapers had been established in the countries of emigration. The impulse to improve their prospects that prompted immigrants to action also involved further education and the early days of settlement were characterised by the proliferation of libraries and a variety of educational institutions. This desire for knowledge and the consequent need for books was formalised to some extent by the Education Act 1877, and by the mid 1880s almost three-quarters of the country's population of about half a million could read and write.

In such an environment bookselling looked to have a good future. Providing material for learning, replacing books that had to be sold to help finance emigration, and offering literary consolation for the isolation from a culture left behind, guaranteed a flourishing trade. From 1850, when Charlotte Godley and her husband rarely encountered the treat of new books, to 1872, when Anthony Trollope on a visit commented on the small towns with libraries, and stated that 'Carlyle, Macaulay and Dickens are certainly better known to small communities in New Zealand than they are to similar congregations of men and women at home', the availability of books had increased rapidly. However, given that in 1890 20% of the population lived in the four main centres and that the remainder were to be found in country settlements, bookselling was for the most part a function of general retail establishments. Similarly, circulating libraries, which usually existed as one facet of a retailer's activity, were a feature of commercial life from the 1860s.

The commercial manifestation of print culture was also found in the development of religious bookshops. This followed naturally from the country's church-sponsored settlements and the evangelical spirit in general. The Presbyterian Bookroom chain, the British and Foreign Bible Society's depots along with Catholic and Methodist bookshops were established and have continued for the most to the present. A Christian Booksellers' Association was formed in 1974.

In addition to bookshops, auctioneering contributed to making books available from the earliest days of settlement. Stock, both new and secondhand, would be ordered from England. In 1877 J.H. Bethune & Co. was established in Wellington and this signified a more specialised approach to auctioneering, servicing not only the general population with overseas publications but also the bibliophile and archival libraries with rare New Zealand volumes and manuscripts.

The latter decades of the 19th century saw the continuing growth of the country's population with particular consequences for the world of print. Following upon the Education Act 1877 the publishing and selling of educational books increased substantially and the rapid extension of the railway system through Julius Vogel's public works programme produced a network of railway station bookstalls. By the end of the century, larger bookselling firms were beginning to feature, the obvious example being Whitcombe & Tombs, which originated in Christchurch and began to buy up other businesses elsewhere in New Zealand. G.H. Bennett and Co. of Palmerston North, established in 1891, and Carthew's bookshop, established in Feilding in 1879, were two notable larger businesses, both incidentally with strong family traditions.

During that part of the 20th century up to the end of World War II, bookselling was characterised by the growth of Whitcombe & Tombs as a national chain, the development of London Bookshops as a small chain which included lending libraries, and the growth of a number of solid independents. This period also saw the rise of political bookshops and their eventual replacement from the 1960s by the emergence of specialist bookshops which represented the later and continuing development in bookselling. These specialisations include women's studies (Kate Sheppard Bookshop, Christchurch, and Women's Bookshop, Auckland), ethnic interests (Pasifika Books, Auckland), children's books (Dorothy Butler, Auckland, among others), technical and medical publications, environmental studies, astrology, alternative life style and new age material. Somewhat more general specialists include Scorpio Books in Christchurch, the various university bookshops—apart from their textbook stock—and Unity Books in Wellington and Auckland. The Australian chain of Dymocks has opened shops in Auckland, Wellington and elsewhere since 1994, challenging the Whitcoulls/London Bookshops virtual monopoly in the general bookshop business.

The other main development in the distribution of print in book form is that of wholesaling, which has a much shorter history than that of retailing.
Black and white photograph

A crowded window display in the new (1911) premises of bookseller and stationer Joseph Thomas Ward in Victoria Avenue, Wanganui, photographed by Frank J. Denton. Ward had earlier run a circulating library in Taupō Quay premises, established in 1896, but his biography in Volume 3 of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (1996) reveals that his strongest abilities were as an astronomer of some note and also as a violinist. In the early 1990s Wanganui was home to New Zealand's earliest bookshop still trading under its original name: H.I. Jones, also in Victoria Avenue, was established in 1860. (F.J. Denton Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ, reference number G-16860-1/1-)

Until World War II there were no wholesale bookselling establishments such as exist at present. Importation had been undertaken since the 1870s by a few of the more enterprising booksellers until agents appointed by overseas publishers began calling on booksellers with publishers' lists, obtaining orders and sending them on to their principals. Eventually some publishers decided to carry wholesale stock in New Zealand in addition to supplying books direct to booksellers (i.e. filling orders obtained by agents). Among those who established a wholesale presence were Collins (now HarperCollins), Penguin Books, Hodder and Stoughton (now Hodder Moa Beckett), William Heinemann, and Hutchinson. Firms set up to represent publishers were Hicks Smith, Oswald-Sealy and Leonard Fullerton Ltd. Altogether a good range of British publishing was made available in this way. Random House and Transworld Publishers are recent significant additions to the number of larger wholesalers.

The wholesaling of New Zealand publications was for a long time mainly in the hands of Whitcombe & Tombs and A.H. & A.W. Reed, but by the 1990s the former (now called Whitcoulls) had ceased wholesaling, and Reeds had been taken over by an international company, although still wholesaling. The place of these two firms pre-eminent since the 1970s had steadily been superseded by a growing number of smaller companies wholesaling a much wider range of material. The wholesale supplies of magazines, as distinct from books, was for many years largely in the hands of Gordon & Gotch. This firm, which had humble beginnings in the Victorian goldfields in the 19th century, became the dominant supplier to both newsagents and booksellers in Australia and later throughout New Zealand. Competition in recent times has broadened the range of titles and added numerous international newspapers. One recent development has been the stocking of magazines (alongside paperbacks) by supermarkets.

There were two other factors that influenced the decision to hold local wholesale stock. The first was import licensing imposed in the 1930s and in place until 1963. Licences set limits to a bookseller's capacity to import books and represented a restriction on his business. New licences and increases to existing licences were difficult to obtain, resulting in wholesalers being turned to more and more. The second factor was that for some years there had been an increasing number of accounts opened by local booksellers with overseas publishers and these were proving to be uneconomic to service.

From this arose closed market operations which required that some titles or imprints be purchased by the bookseller only from a New Zealand wholesaler while other books not necessarily stocked in New Zealand could still be imported. Both means of supply were effected by orders taken from the bookseller by the wholesaler's representative, or by orders initiated by the bookseller. The 1990s has seen the loosening of some of these arrangements and the increasing use of overseas wholesalers by a number of more innovative booksellers. Electronic technology and less costly air freight has provided a global aspect to bookselling not possible until the last few years. Books from virtually anywhere are expected to be supplied quickly, and this has put new demands on both wholesaler and retailer. These changes have also put pressure on market rights, a system whereby an originating publisher, say in the United States, would sell the right to publish a title to a British publisher who would be entitled to sell it in Commonwealth countries without competition from the American edition. This system, which was modified during and after the 1970s because of its restrictiveness and monopoly implications, continues nevertheless to influence book importing.

General studies

'The trade of bookselling . . . remains one of the great unknowns of research into cultural history.' So remarked a flier advertising an international conference on bookselling in France held in 1996. D.F. McKenzie and K.A. Coleridge commented similarly about New Zealand in their introduction to Printing, Bookselling and their Allied Trades in New Zealand c.1900: Extracts from the Cyclopedia of New Zealand (1980). However there is one valuable exception. In 1993, Anna and Max Rogers published Turning the Pages: The Story of Bookselling in New Zealand. The four parts deal in turn with the metropolitan centres, the regions, the chains, and with 'issues' 1920s to 1990s. The authors properly insist that to compile a 'complete history . . . would involve many years of research'. (Especial thanks are due to the authors and publisher for permitting substantial use of their work in the preparation of this essay.) Two papers offer general reflections. Harold White, 'The distribution of books in New Zealand', a paper prepared for the seminar 'The Changing Shape of Books' held at Victoria University of Wellington in 1973 discusses bookshop profitability and the myths of bookselling. In 1996 the economist Brian Easton gave a paper 'Bookshops and political shops' at the conference of Booksellers New Zealand, in which he discussed the variety of Wellington's bookshops in order to illustrate the political change to MMP.


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).

Administrative structure and government controls

The book trade was given an official structure with the formation in 1921 of the Booksellers' Association (later Associated Booksellers of New Zealand; later still Booksellers New Zealand) to deal with commonly recognised issues: trading terms with publishers, price cutting, censorship, submissions to government and new bookselling ideas. The background to the 1920s and 1930s were the world recession's effect on export earnings followed by the Great Depression, and hard times were experienced (wage reductions resulted from the Finance Act 1931). However, membership drives had built up the numbers and a stronger voice was available for dealings with the government on matters such as the imposition of sales tax (1933), the customs charge of primage (1935) and censorship. Official bookselling concern was expressed about the competition for entertainment expenditure—cars, wireless, movies and cabarets—and the need to advertise effectively to counter this trend.

Censorship has always been a fact of life for booksellers and the evolution of this form of restriction is one barometer of a society's changing values. The Offensive Publications Act 1892 specified what was regarded as indecent at that time (VD, sexual aids, abortion or contraception). The Indecent Publications Act 1910, which did not actually define indecency but dealt with the seizure of indecent documents 'set the scene for censorship in New Zealand for the next 40 years' (Gordon Tait, The Bartlett Syndrome: Censorship in New Zealand, 1979, p.3). The banning and seizure of books had become part of the bookseller's experience in the early years of the century, but with the arrival of World War I seditious literature came under government spotlight, and restrictions, especially on political literature, were imposed more stringently. Restrictions were relaxed somewhat during the late 1920s and early 1930s, subsequent to the strict requirements of the War Regulations Continuance Act 1920, and an Order in Council of May 1921 which had prohibited the importation of 'any document which incites, encourages, advises, or advocates violence, lawlessness or disorder, or expresses any seditious intention' (quoted Barrowman, 1991, p.43). The advent of World War II brought into being the Censorship and Publicity Emergency Regulations which included a wide definition of subversive material aimed at any literature regarded officially as being against the war effort. The obvious example was Communist literature. This challenge for booksellers was encapsulated by Harold White, director of the Association, who said in 1973: 'is it not interesting that with honourable exceptions . . . it is a trade group that has been so active in a long-fought battle in this country to defend—or rather extend—the right of people to read books freely?' (quoted Rogers, 1993, p.15).

In 1954, the Indecent Publications Amendment Act was passed to deal with 'anything which unduly emphasises matters of sex, horror, crime, cruelty or violence' (Rogers, 1993, p.261). The Association negotiated strenuously with the Justice Department to define the responsibility of its booksellers. The actions of the Customs Department were arbitrary and stories abound of the seizure of books in ignorance of titles and authors. The Indecent Publications Act 1963 took decisions out of the hands of politicians and customs officers and gave this function to an Indecent Publications Tribunal. This resolved much censorship confusion.

The Indecent Publications Tribunal ceased to exist in October 1994 when new legislation (the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act 1993) came into force. The legislation provides for all media under a single consistent regime and reflects developing technology, growing public interest and changing attitudes—possession of 'objectionable' material is now a criminal offence. Three new independent bodies were created: the Industry Labelling Body, the Office of Film and Literature Classifications and the Film and Literature Board of Review. This new structure is intended to provide a more flexible scheme, and a censorship environment where issues can be debated and decided with community involvement.

Another major issue which arose about this time was that of uniform retail prices. The government believed that such price agreement was not in the public interest as defined by the Trade Practices Act. In spite of both considerable evidence to the contrary and the help of an expert witness from England, the enquiry in 1962 found against the continuation of price schedules. On appeal, however, the finding was reversed.

The 1970s saw the arrival of Harold White as secretary, later director of the Association, and the development of the organisation into a more professional body. The collection of retailers 'Christian, educational, provincial, urban, each [with] their own needs and idiosyncrasies' (Rogers, 1993, p.271) was drawn together more effectively than before. Censorship continued to be a significant issue. Patricia Bartlett founded her Society for the Promotion of Community Standards in 1970, and throughout the decade there were confrontations with booksellers wishing to sell books of which she did not approve. The Association was kept busy. Gordon Tait, a Christchurch bookseller, was also very active in opposition to her strictures,
Black and white photograph

This lively picture of a newspaper boy provides a good example of the simplest distribution method: direct selling. It is unusual for print items other than newspapers, sports programmes or ephemeral handouts to be distributed on the street, although some religious groups employ this means of targeting their market. The photographer is unknown, but its provenance suggests that the paper being sold is the Christchurch Evening News (est. 1909) which ceased in 1917. (Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ, reference number G-41280-1/2-)

witness his book The Bartlett Syndrome (1979).

During 1980 Harold White and Roy Parsons resigned. These two had contributed in a major way to the effective functioning of the Association. So the decade began with new personnel and some new issues, the main one being the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST). The imposition of this tax had been long and vigorously opposed, but calls for exemption were not acknowledged by the government, and by 1985 booksellers prepared themselves to take on this new tax. Book promotion, in the light of the growth of competing leisure activities, was given greater emphasis. In 1991 Booksellers New Zealand came into being. Its significance was that it represented both booksellers and publishers, and thereby provided a more concerted thrust in marketing the book trade.

Studies and sources

Directories old and new and of various kinds offer information about booksellers, and their businesses, not least in their advertising sections. Dedicated directories of sections of the trade are Norwood (1989), also B.R. Howes, Book Dealers in Australia and New Zealand (1987- ). Archive materials must be sought in the many repositories—there is no general guide devoted especially to trade sources. The Hocken Library, Dunedin, for instance holds an important collection of Newbold's archives and the papers of its proprietor Dick White. General dictionaries of biography include some booksellers: for instance the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol.3, includes articles on A.H. Reed and B. Whitcombe. The forthcoming Southern People: A Dictionary of Otago-Southland Biography, ed. Jane Thomson, is to include short lives of both White and Joseph Braithwaite, the prominent Dunedin bookseller. (David McDonald of the Hocken Library is working on a fuller study of Braithwaite.) Information may be culled from trade periodicals, such as New Zealand Bookseller & Publisher and Book Trade Monthly. Individual booksellers also may issue their own publicity material, or even something more ambitious, such as Parsons Packet, issued 1947-55 by Roy Parsons of Parsons Bookshop, 126 Lambton Quay, Wellington. Parsons Packet (1984) is a selection of articles from that periodical. Further information on book auctions, and secondhand and antiquarian bookshops is given later in this chapter under 'Book collecting'.

Specific sources include: Minutes of the Associated Booksellers of New Zealand/New Zealand Bookseller Association 1922-69, which are held in the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington; Minutes of Booksellers Association of New Zealand/Booksellers New Zealand 1969-91, which are held by the Association in Book House, Wellington; Book trade journals, which include NZ Bookseller & Publisher, New Zealand Book World, Book Trade Monthly, and Booksellers News.


This brief survey of bookselling in New Zealand attempts to show particular features that have shaped this aspect of our print culture. The energy, enterprise and sometimes vision of individuals have contributed most to the place of bookselling. Frequently there is found a passion for books, an emotion which, when well directed, allows the burning of the midnight oil, the labouring for love and the acceptance of an often modest return. Sometimes, however, the same passion encourages the myth that a love of books and an apparently easy way of life will make a good-looking balance sheet appear automatically. That those with intelligent dedication outnumber the dreamers is evidenced by so many quietly successful businesses continuing to exist in such a small population. The abiding pressure on bookselling as one form of cultural expression has been the presence of censorship, especially that imposed by law. While guidelines are no doubt necessary from time to time, many would argue that a kind of censorship by way of a bookseller's selection of stock based on likely public interest should be a sufficient self-regulator. However, there is nothing to suggest that by virtue of the continuing tension between enterprise and regulation, the place of bookselling in New Zealand's print culture will change significantly in the foreseeable future.