We continue our series on bookstores around New Zealand as Wilma van den Bosch explains how she opened Petronella’s in Lake Tekapo.
In 1990 I sent an immigration application to the New Zealand Embassy in The Hague that included a business plan for a bookshop. I was living in the Netherlands, my homeland, where I worked as a bookseller in a women’s bookshop which was run by a feminist collective without hierarchy. Every decision had to be discussed, including the human rights of the elderly man in a wheelchair. He had no access to the interior of the shop so he beckoned us regularly from the footpath with a list of books by female authors that were known for explicit sexual scenes or self-help pictures. The discussions drove me mad, but it taught me about engagement and fairness in business, and the importance of independent bookstores.
My permanent residency application was approved but it was probably thanks to a letter of support from my future Kiwi husband. In 1992 we settled in Lake Tekapo and we opened Tailor-made-tekapo Backpackers, in an old New Zealand Electricity Department staff hostel. The buildings had housed the single men working on the construction of the hydropower scheme but they had left in the early 80s after the project was completed. Lake Tekapo was left with only 300 residents, a couple of motels and a Youth Hostel. The local skifield was closed because of lean snow years. It made for very long and quiet winters. Most of the NZED staff houses that surrounded the hostel stood vacant apart from the few that housed the plumber, the rabbiter and the last power house operator. I had enough business sense to see that this was not viable place to open a bookshop.
Slowly New Zealand’s tourism industry gained momentum and by the time we sold our hostel in 2014, Lake Tekapo was busy and booming all year round. The main street is now lined with souvenir shops, cafés, restaurants and activity operators. Even though the village still only has 400 residents, thousands of tourists make it very lucrative for retail.
The time was right to open a bookstore. But any premises that came available were quickly snapped up by tourism related businesses and, realistically, the market rent was too high for a bookshop for locals and domestic holidaymakers.
Eventually, Mackenzie District Council realised that it was in the interest and wellbeing of the community to assist businesses with a local focus. They offered up an old building on council land in a quiet cul-de-sac with a covenant that its use is not for tourism-related industry. In the 80s and 90s, it was owned by the NZ Post Welfare Trust to provide holiday accommodation for their employees. When the council earmarked it for demolition to make way for new development, NZ Post relocated to a new subdivision. However, with the council’s focus on other land, the units stayed vacant and, with no better option, I accepted the lease on two dark concrete garages on the ground floor.
I had only one month to set about creating the shop of my dreams. I was delighted when I realised that two small garages combined, provide a decent 36m² floor space. Once the garage doors were replaced by glass sliding doors, my north facing store filled with light. After lining and painting the concrete walls and adding a wooden floor I was ready to fill my new bookshelves with books. I didn’t quite have a master plan. I love new and shiny books and I randomly selected from my own favourite authors, my husband’s naturalist interest, bestseller lists and award winners. A librarian friend gave me a list of the most popular books borrowed at the local library but I quickly learned the lesson that the books borrowed from the library are no indication about what locals like to buy.
My location gets very little foot traffic. No amount of signage can drag the overseas tourists away from the main shopping area. Until the infrastructure improves, my focus is the wider local community. I angst about my selection because I want to appear intelligent and up to date. I often run a couple of weeks late before I cotton on to new popular publications and prizewinning authors. Thankfully my customers are kind, and express their delight about the selection of books that I do have. As long as I keep it interesting, they forgive me for not always being current or comprehensive.
It’s fun to have a bookshop in a community where I’ve lived in for nearly 30 years and know well. There’s a big table in the middle of the shop that ostensibly is used for displaying books but more often than not it holds a couple of mugs of tea and half a packet of biscuits. On book group nights, the tea is replaced by wine. In school holidays the children come and colour in and listen to story time. Gavin Bishop sat at it talking to the local children. Owen Marshall read from his work. I have art by local artists on my walls and I named the store Petronella’s Gallery and Bookstore. My first names are Wilhelmina Petronella Maria, after my grandmother, but the locals call me Wilma.