In the first in an occasional series on bookstores around New Zealand, Wendy Barrow tells how she left Invercargill to follow her dream in Greymouth.
The idea to open a second-hand bookstore in Greymouth came about as a way to exit living in Invercargill. After 12 years there I wanted to go home, north and west and out of the southerly, to swim and to read. I quit work. Then I spent three months with a backpack biking the op shops of Invercargill and filling it with my favourites: Orwell, Steinbeck, Vonnegut, Kapuscinski, short stories, Granta collections, Roald Dahl, heavy on New Zealand and anything on the West Coast.
There were day trips to Winton and Gore to clean out their treasures. I packed them up in my Toyota Hi-Ace 4WD van and drove north via Dunedin and collected many more. I was now in the swing of it and arrived home over the mountains to Greymouth with my first load of loot. But where to put them? I rented a shipping container, and set about filling it with more books.
One morning in May 2018 I headed off at daybreak and drove through Geraldine, Waimate, Kurow, and the Dansey through snow, hoped to catch a glimpse of Brian Turner in Oturehua but no luck, then through Ophir, Alexandra and over Moa Flat to Invercargill for the annual Rotary book sale. I got in early and scooped up a couple of hundred books at the Civic.
Then north, to Mataura. It was a dollar a bag for books at the SPCA shop which was colder in than out. Gore, Balclutha, Milton, Oamaru, Temuka, and home again via Christchurch. A day’s rest, then it was up to Nelson via Reefton.
The next road trip lasted four months: I came to conquer the North Island. I went as far north as Katikati and Waihi, then to Wellington for the annual City Mission sale, stopping off at all and any book depositories in between.
I got back home to Greymouth in October. The next task was to find a name for the shop. The contenders were Bookjoy, Mabo Books , Barrow Books, The Booksmith, Primo Libre – then out of the blue came Red.
Finding a shop wasn’t easy. Although downtown Greymouth is dying and buildings are empty, the leases are outrageous and unaffordable for a secondhand bookshop. After approaching anybody and everybody we could think of with no success, word arrived that the Tradewinds shop was closing down so I met Mervyn outside the taxi office and with my son as a witness we shook hands. Three months later we got the keys.
We needed timber to build shelves. A local sawmiller was approached, and a free load of Kahikatea was mine (cheers Ken Griff). And so the treasures were shelved, and there were many, from Harold Wellman’s biography to Theo Schoon’s design book, from Kapuscinski’s Travels with Herodotus to Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself, and a first edition of Bill Pearson’s West Coast classic, Coal Flat.
Critics were plenty. They hooted: “You’re mad! No one reads.” They shook their heads, and said, “What else will ya sell?” They inquired, “Will you have any books by Diana Gabaldon?”
Red Books is a resurrection of sorts. It’s on the exact same site as the legendary Walden Books, opened by the great West Coast author Peter Hooper. Philosopher, poet, novelist-in-embryo, and a devotee of the American transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, he named the shop after his hero and began selling quality literature to all and sundry. It was later taken over by a co-op; many famous poetry readings and revels took place there, one featuring a pre-bone people Keri Hulme.
Opening day for Red Books was June 18. There was a full moon and the morning was frosty as; the potbelly stove got cranked up, and roared with macrocarpa. People came in, looked at books, bought books. Across the road the Grey Star newspaper is printed daily and you can watch it whirling out as you sit in our front, sunny window. Welcome to Red Books.