It was to be either a country pub or a bookshop. The idea for the retiring years was that I would have staff and be allowed to sit on the customer side of the counter and tell long boring stories putting the world to rights. It’s turned out to be bookshop specialising in military history, Messines in Featherston, where the storytelling is by customers recounting their family histories as they look for books associated with the wartime experiences of their forebears.
The idea of having a bookshop had probably been around in my head for a long time. I scared my wife many years ago with the idea of a second-hand bookshop on Waiheke Island. She didn’t like Waiheke.
I’m currently in the process of retiring from 10 years as CEO of Booksellers NZ, the Wellington-based trade organisation for booksellers. Of course the bookshop idea was very much imbued in me as the result of being in daily contact with the many dedicated bookshop owners around the country.
Another push along the path of becoming a bookshop owner came when I made a promise on national radio that I would open a bookshop as part of the plan to turn Featherston into a booktown. I was being interviewed by Kathryn Ryan with the founder of the Booktown Movement, Richard Booth of Hay on Wye in Wales. Sadly, Richard died last week but he was in full force that day. Trying to keep up with his enthusiasm, I made the promise that I would open a bookshop as part of the Featherston Booktown plan. Peter Biggs, now chair of the Featherston Booktown Trust, heard me and has made sure I kept my word.
Messines Bookshop is now two-and-a-half years old, open Thursday through Sunday, and is one of six bookshops that have turned Featherston into a Booktown and a member of the International Booktown Organisation.
Featherston’s military history relates to the World War I army training camp that saw 60,000 troops trained there, many of them marching over the Rimutakas on their way to war. They served mostly on the Western Front and Palestine. It was at Messines, in Flanders, that the Featherston-trained Kiwis first made their mark, capturing the village in a well-planned, extremely well-executed battle prior to the disaster of Passchendaele a few weeks later.
The relationship with Messines has endured. The towns are twinned and the battle is commemorated every year in both villages. In Featherston, commemoration is by way of a wreath-laying ceremony at the town’s war memorial which happens to be opposite what is now Messines Bookshop.
I’ve always had an interest in military history. I had a bit of stock collected on the bookshelves at home but I needed a whole lot more. Three well-known booksellers came to my rescue with generous trade deals on stock they had. Renowned rare book dealer John Quilter sold me a few hundred quality books. Tim Skinner was just closing Capital Books, and I was able to obtain recently-published stock; and Don Hollander of the Book Haven in Newtown had boxes of military history books that I was able to have. All three gave me advice as well.
There is continuous new stock of second-hand books coming through the bookshop door brought in by families wishing to clear out overloaded bookcases and/or collections of a recently-deceased relative. We also sell new books, especially those concerning New Zealand’s military history, including accounts of the New Zealand Land Wars.
We opened in February 2016 without much fanfare, but we had built a website with a POS system and began trading both from the physical shop and also online. The online sales have seen a growing number of books sold to many different countries including Norway, the United States, Japan, Estonia as well as the UK and Australia.
Very often those customers who come into the bookshop have a story to tell from their family’s history. A father, grandfather, and grandmothers may have served in one of a number of wars. Often these veterans did not talk much about their experiences. When they die, the families realise there is a gap in knowledge of the family history. Thus they come looking for books that might help them to understand an experience that was little talked about around the diner table.
And we sell children’s books, such as the tale of the Soldier with the Yellow Socks, a factual account of double Victoria Cross holder Charles Upham, who was seen to wear yellow socks when presented with his first VC medal. My favourite children’s book, and one I have read to numerous local kids who come into the bookshop, is Torty and the Soldier, about the oldest survivor of the First World War in New Zealand – a tortoise that is still alive in Napier believed to be 200 years old. Torty was rescued from Salonika by a couple of Kiwi medical orderlies returning from Gallipoli.
It’s still early days for Messines Bookshop. But I’m working hard to establish a niche community of military history buffs – while also fulfilling that dream of owning a bookshop.