In the latest in our regular series on bookshops around New Zealand, Fraser Newman tells of opening Atlantis Books in Rotorua and Tokoroa – and having to close in Whakatane.

Atlantis Books began life selling washing machines and fridges.

It all started 15 years ago on a quiet intersection in Tokoroa. Bridge Street Traders dabbled in a mixture of used goods and refurbished whiteware which lined the pavement outside each morning.

And then owner Gregory Price began to notice that the odd book that came in sold fast. Within a year the whiteware was gone, and Books Alive was born.

By 2014 he ran two stores, one in Rotorua and one in Tokoroa. I was fresh off a contract managing Rotorua’s award-winning independent bookstore McLeods Booksellers and wanted to own one myself. I got talking to Mr Price one day and a handshake and some lawyers later we were in business.

The re-branded Atlantis Books opened five weeks later in Rotorua in the old Toy World building with a massive footprint and the whole upstairs/downstairs dynamic.

A few weeks later the Tokoroa store joined us, and by the end of the year we also had an Atlantis Books store in Whakātane.

Atlantis Books owner Fraser Newman says you also cannot judge book readers by their covers. 

We wanted to be a new and used bookshop. The idea of being having both was exciting and there were clear opportunities.

New books could fill gaps, used books were affordable and never out of print, and new releases would come back to us. The model has worked on a limited basis overseas and even in New Zealand few used bookshops are 100 percent used.

But there are downsides. Outside of some genres, the price differences can be too broad, leaving new books sitting on the shelves, even if there were no used equivalents.

Then there was this odd way in which people seemed to avoid buying prestige new releases, such as coffee table or cookbooks, from a second-hand bookshop.

Even when reduced to cost, customers appeared set on buying the same books for more money from new bookshops.

It’s not to say the model does not work. It clearly does in places. We just had to make a business decision.

New books are expensive, even at wholesale, and you make less margin on them. For the same amount, you could fill a shop with even better used books with a much greater range.

So the question is not does the new/used model work, but is it optimal? For us, the answer was, ‘no’.

It would be a mistake to think bookshops cannot thrive in small town New Zealand.

Since returning the focus to used books we’ve built a collection of rare and collectibles as well as out-of-print New Zealand non-fiction.

It’s perhaps the most exciting part of the job as the Bay of Plenty is a large catch pool of dusty tomes and family collections.

We see all sorts, from a limited edition French biography of the Empress Marie Louise to a leatherbound gold-gilt translation of the poetry of Horace.

It would be a mistake to think bookshops cannot thrive in small town New Zealand.

Here in Tokoroa and Rotorua we’re within an hour’s drive of around quarter of a million people.

Tokoroa is right on State Highway 1 with all the traffic, and Rotorua has over 3.5 million visitors pass through each year.

You also cannot judge on demographics. In the last hour the local homeless kitchen collected a box of donated books so the homeless can keep reading.

Also I’ve found a lot of former inmates started reading in prison and keep doing so outside. They just tend to be the less literary books, like westerns or sci-fi/fantasy.

The closure of the Whakatane store is the story of a family tragedy.

After seeing the success of Atlantis in Tokoroa and Rotorua, my father decided to invest in a Whakatāne store.

He was a big collector of New Zealand fiction and wanted a bookshop in retirement in the birthplace of Margaret Mahy. He died suddenly only two weeks before the store planned to open.

All of a sudden, I was dealing with the death of a parent, the loss of an investor and the immediate opening – or failure – of a business.

We forged ahead and opened the shop only a month later, but closed it last year.

It never really recovered from such an inauspicious start and in the 12 months prior to closing I drove over 90,000km. It just wasn’t sustainable.

Handing the keys back to the landlord felt like the end of an era. Whakatāne customers still visit us in our Rotorua shop, and while I value having my time back, a part of me will always miss the bookshop that could have been.

Previously in our bookshop series:

Red Books in Greymouth

Deborah Coddington’s bookstore in Martinborough

The Twizel Bookstore

Fraser Newman is co-owner of Atlantis Books. He studied at the University of Waikato and Southwest University of Nationalities in Chengdu. Before becoming a bookseller he managed a private English training...

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