Lisa Adler, of Vic Books Kelburn: young at 60.

Today is Wellington bookseller Lisa Adler’s birthday. Two weeks ago, at the 2022 Aotearoa Book Trade Industry Awards, she won the Best Emerging Bookseller  Award – which used to be known as the Best Young Bookseller Award, but that doesn’t quite work anymore. Lisa turns 60 today. She worked in nursing for 30 years and joined Vic Books Pipitea late in 2018. That store closed down at the end of July; as reported in ReadingRoom, it was a victim of the goddamned Occupation. She has shifted to the Vic Books Kelburn store at the university campus in her position as book buyer. An interview was conducted this weekend.

You worked the last 10 years of nursing in palliative care. Please describe one of no doubt many beautiful stories of courage, dignity, pain, and death.

Many deaths are quiet expirations of life and not at all dramatic.  Most of the people I met were courageous and carried themselves with dignity in a situation that one never encounters until you must.  Their courage was quiet: still getting up each day while suffering physical restrictions; making plans to enjoy future events knowing they may not be alive; tackling something they always wanted to but hadn’t got round to; supporting their families who are as devastated as they are…  And dignity is something that is personal: what I hoped to do was learn what dignity meant to the person I was visiting and ensure they were able to maintain it.  The pleasure and satisfaction I got from this nursing was feeling I had enabled the person to have managed their impending death in the way they wanted, and that the family/whanau were left with some kind of acceptance, within their grief.

Were books your refuge?

Often what was important to me was being in nature, travelling when my holidays came around, being with those people I enjoyed being with – the important lesson that being a palliative nurse gave me is to never take anything for granted: do what you feel is important, tell the people you love that you do love them – expect that there is always the chance you may find your life is not as long as you would like/expect it to be and constantly ask yourself if you are happy with where you are.  If not, then make the changes you need to.

Did you have patients who were voracious readers?  I remember when the great broadcaster Peter Sinclair died in palliative care, he was reading Evelyn Waugh.

I did have one patient whose husband was an antiquarian bookseller.  There were some extraordinary old books and documents in her home and we would have wonderful discussions about their business and the joy of reading.

Was it anything like burn-out that made you decide to quit?

No,  I stopped because of pregnancy: we moved countries while I was pregnant so I didn’t have a position to go back to after maternity leave. And I had already been thinking about doing something different.  I have a very supportive husband who told me to do what I wanted to do, and the love of literature had been re-ignited while I was at home with our children.  I really wanted the challenge of studying it further so enrolled in the English Literature and Classics course at Victoria University.  I loved every minute of it and decided I wanted to work directly with getting books into people’s hands. 

Is working in a bookstore a kind of a dream come true?

Yes!  I have thought about what connection there is between nursing and bookselling and have decided it is the human story.  What I loved about nursing was getting to know the patients: most people have fascinating things happen in their lives; they don’t make headlines, but they are extraordinary, nonetheless.  Books are the written expression of human story: our desires, experiences, imaginations – fictional and non-fictional. 

How has it changed you, do you think?

My Eng Lit and Classics degree changed the way I read.  I learnt to be a closer reader – to take note of the style of language, form of the prose, be aware of metaphors, hunt for connections, be mindful that there might be more than one thing going on.  I used to read for more than plot but my study and putting that knowledge to use has expanded  how I read in lots of ways. Working in the bookshop has honed my reading and enabled me to be more confident in my thoughts about the books on sale.

Name five New Zealand books that you’ve read / sold since you worked at Vic Books that entirely and genuinely blew your goddamned mind.

Kurangaituku by Whiti Hereaka, Greta and Valdin by Rebecca K Reilly, Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey, Aué by Becky Manawatu, and Small Holes in the Silence by Patricia Grace.

Please describe the goddamned Occupation.

I believe in the right to protest and wanted to see how it would play out. By the beginning of the second week it was problematic for Vic Books Pipitea to trade: the protesters had completely taken over the pavement and road outside our shop (and university campus).  They were verbally abusing any of our staff coming from Kelburn to deliver stock that were wearing masks.  Hygiene standards were loose:  food scraps thrown about, food wrappings, bottles not in rubbish bins.  The stench was strong. Campers began to camp against our shop, sticking signs to the outside of our windows.  Loudhailers with abusive messages, slogans advocating violence… The university closed its doors and we followed suit: no students felt safe coming in, and the usual foot traffic and customers weren’t coming anywhere near the shop. 

Please describe what it was like to finish work at Pipitea and leave the premises.

Heartbreaking.  Pipitea was where I started with Vic Books: it was where I worked hard, along with my colleague, Karen, to form relationships with customers, students, University staff, other local businesses that would shop with us.  I could choose books that reflected my customer base and curate our shop to meet the shopping trends of the people who came in. I loved the customers teaching me about books too – it was reciprocal.  Because the campus is smaller than Kelburn, it was easier to get to know the students, and I loved seeing them come in so often over the years they studied there; particularly over Covid we would keep an eye on them, making sure they were coping alright. I will always feel devastated that it closed under the circumstances it did.

Finally – how are you?

I am great.  I will always have a sadness about Pip, but life moves on and continuing to cry over spilled milk stops you embracing the new challenges – and I very much want to make Kelburn the special place Pipitea was.

Other winners at the 2022 Aotearoa Book Trade Industry Awards included Michelle Hurley at Allen & Unwin, named Emerging NZ Publisher of the Year; Lost and Found: My story of heartbreak and hope by Toni Street won the award for best-selling New Zealand book; Greta and Valdin by Rebecca K Reilly won the Aotearoa Booksellers’ Choice Award; Penguin Random House won the Nielsen BookData NZ Publisher of the Year; and awesome booksellers David and Jenny Hedley, of Hedley’s Books in Masterton were honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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