Ruth Shaw is the bookseller at the end of the world
My first bookshop in Manapōuri was 45 South and Below. A middle-aged lady came into the shop one day and without any greeting she started to collect together books with green spines. Her pile grew as she stripped my shelves.
“This is an interesting collection of books,” I said eventually. “Are you aware that some of them are rare . . . and quite . . .expensive?”
“Oh, I’m not worried about the cost,” she replied. “Only the colour. I have a new home and want to colour-coordinate the library.”
She smiled when she said this.
I had never heard of a colour-coordinated library. I stood looking at her in total disbelief. After about 20 seconds of stunned silence I managed to blurt out, “Well, my books have to be read! I will not sell any of my books just to be put in a fake library and forgotten. You can’t buy any of these books!”
“I’m willing to pay for them!” she replied, taken aback.
“Well, I’m not going to sell them,” I said sharply, and started to put the books back on the shelves.
She gathered up her things and stormed out of the shop.
I have to be very careful what books I buy in, as shelf space is so limited in my two wee shops. I rely on people bringing in books to sell: they might be downsizing, or family members have moved out — or the books might be part of a deceased estate.
I have a strict code when it comes to estates: I will not buy books until the person has been deceased for at least six months. I make sure I ask whether the rest of the family have been given the opportunity to keep any books themselves, and I discuss with them the importance of keeping the books in the family. It’s surprisingly common, when someone in the family dies, for all of their books to be quickly boxed up and dropped off at a charity shop, or taken to a book dealer, with no one realising that some of them are rare and worth a lot of money.
I don’t give people an overall price for a box of books; I price each book individually, which can take many hours. If I am invited to go into a home to price a library and identify rare or special books, I explain that even if they don’t want to keep the books for themselves, maybe a grandchild will treasure them later in life. Every book has a story, and many carry precious memories.
When I hold one of my mother’s books I remember her; I touch the same page she touched, I read the same words she read. Books collected over many years become part of the family. They have been loved, read and re-read, and have often travelled around the world. They live in silence for years in a family home bearing witness to many special occasions, bringing the reader joy and sometimes tears.
I therefore handle every book with care. I go through the pages looking for handwritten notes in the margins, or wee drawings of insects, leaves and flowers. Often I find letters, pressed flowers, postcards and photographs, and in one botany book I found a letter written on a leaf.
Alan Petrie, retired, from Te Anau, brought me some books he wanted to sell. The leaf in question was tucked neatly inside one of the books, still in perfect condition, pale green and supple. Written on it was this text: Hello! Writing this postcard from Preservation Inlet where we just saw two whales; watched them for about half an hour close to the ship. Great trip so far; weather not the best but cannot do much about that. Will see you sometime in the afternoon on Sunday. Love William.
Māori used the large, pliable leaves of rangiora (Brachyglottis repanda) for wrapping food and swaddling babies, and as a poultice for wounds. Later, European settlers used it as notepaper and toilet paper, leading to its other common name: ‘bushman’s friend’. The related Brachyglottis rotundifolia (muttonbird scrub), which is found only in coastal areas in the lower South Island and Stewart Island, has smaller but thicker leaves that were sometimes used as postcards. People (especially tourists) wrote on the leaves, placed a stamp in the corner, and posted them from Paterson Inlet post office on Stewart Island to addresses all over New Zealand and overseas.
The New Zealand Post Office did not share the public’s enthusiasm for these souvenirs. In 1906 the NZPO advised that “the transmission of tree-leaves posted loose and bearing written communications to the United Kingdom or to countries in transit through the United Kingdom is forbidden”. In 1912 the ban was extended to include ‘any address’. Finally, in 1915 the advice was: “Loose tree-leaves are prohibited, and if posted, are to be sent to the Dead Letter Office for disposal.”
I rang Alan and told him of my find. It turned out that the letter was from his son, and obviously never posted. I was very happy to return the book and the leaf postcard to his father.
One book dealer I met through Plumbly’s Auctions when I had 45 South and Below was Brian Nicholls, who traded under the name Vintage Books of Dunedin.
He had a large book collection of his own, acquired over his many years as a teacher. After buying a house in Broad Bay in 1995 he worked at the wonderful Scribes Bookshop in Dunedin for two years, learning about the book trade, then left to set up a shop for himself. He pondered about establishing a bookshop in central Dunedin, but since he had a large garage under the house, he decided to set up business at home.
Building a massive number of shelves was the first priority; then he set about filling them. A neighbour’s son who was studying computer technology at Otago Polytechnic agreed to build him a website and by 1998 he was in business.
Initially Brian had a lot of customers, but these days most of the business is conducted through the internet. His database now stands at nearly 15,000 books. In the past few years he has concentrated more on New Zealand-published material.
Obviously I went to Brian when I opened my first Wee Bookshop and needed to stock my half-empty shelves. Boxes of wonderful books soon arrived from Dunedin, all of which Brian generously let me pay for as I sold them.
If I have any questions about a book, no matter how rare, Brian will know the answer. If one of my customers wants a book I don’t have, Brian probably does.
Bookshelves looking empty? Time to visit Dunedin and search Brian’s basement, with its shelves reaching from floor to ceiling.
Every few months Pam Plumbly, antiques expert and auctioneer, held book auctions in Dunedin that I attended. At my first auction I was told, “Don’t sit on that chair” by another dealer as he pointed to a wonderfully comfortable lounge chair in the front row. “That’s George’s chair.”
I sat near the back on a hard chair and waited to see who George was.
An elderly gentleman arrived minutes before the auction was to begin. Everyone nodded a greeting as he made his way to his special chair; he was clearly known to everyone.
As I found out later, George Griffiths was a historian, writer, publisher, editor and journalist of some renown. He was made a Companion of the Queen’s Service Order in 1990 and named Dunedin’s Citizen of the Year in 1999. George’s passion was for books and music so it was no surprise to find that he was the founder and owner of the famous shop Otago Heritage Books.
After the auction I introduced myself; he was delighted to hear that I had a ‘specialist’ bookshop in Manapōuri.
“Next time, come through to Dunedin the night before the auction and have dinner with me in my bookshop,” he beamed. “I’ll give you time to look around and I’ll put some books aside for you.”
And that is how I found myself sitting at a perfectly laid dinner table, in the middle of a huge bookshop, sharing a meal with George.
He was a delightful man, semi-bald with patches of white hair and a short beard, eager blue eyes and a quick half-smile.
We talked for hours while going through his collections, not only of books but also of music. I bought all the books he had put aside for me, plus a few more, some quite rare.
George spoke to me as though I knew as much about books as he did. He welcomed me into the fold. I was so overwhelmed with his generosity and by the ease with which he shared his knowledge that I nearly cried when he hugged me as I left.
At the next book auction I sat closer to the front, closer to ‘George’s chair’. I nodded hello, along with the others, as George walked towards his seat.
Years later George and some of his musical friends chartered our yacht Breaksea Girl. They had been researching the early history of music in New Zealand. According to The Journals of Captain Cook, edited by JC Beaglehole, when Cook was in Dusky Sound in 1773 he “caused the Bagpipes and fife to play and the Drum to be beat”. George believed this was the first European music to be played in New Zealand. To celebrate the occasion he and his friends decided to re-enact this part of New Zealand’s history by playing the bagpipes, fife and drum in Dusky Sound.
George went on to write the libretto for Anthony Ritchie’s composition From the Southern Marches. He died in 2014 at the age of 81.
Extracted from The Bookseller at the End of the World by Ruth Shaw (Allen & Unwin, $36.99), available in bookstores nationwide (including Two Wee Bookshops).