The shock closure of a Wellington bookstore
Vic Books – a Wellington institution, 48 years in the bookstore trade, a vital and lively part of the campus at Victoria University – has announced its closure. The shop will close in 10 weeks. The news was sudden and severe, and caught everyone in New Zealand literature by surprise. “Devastated,” responded Booksellers Aotearoa. “Gutted,” responded Te Herenga Waka University Press publisher Fergus Barrowman. He added, by text last night, “Vic Books is so much more than a provider of textbooks and a nice place for senior management to have meetings that I’m surprised we [Victoria University] didn’t work something out.” The role of the Victoria University Wellington Students Association (VUWSA) in the closure has already come under scrutiny, with Barrowman commenting on the Twitter machine, “I don’t understand why the VUWSA Trust, for whom Vic Books has been a significant source of revenue, and the university can’t work something out.” Wellington author Bill Manhire claimed, “It’s VUWSA who actually own and are abandoning the bookshop.”
Vic Books formerly also had premises at Pipitea in Thorndon. It closed last year as a direct result of the summer occupation of Parliament. General manager Jessica Godfrey gave an interview to ReadingRoom at the time and while deeply saddened at having to close the Thorndon store, was looking ahead to revitalising the business at its premises in Kelburn, on the university campus. But it barely lasted six months. Yesterday’s shock announcement signalled the sad end.
Godfrey was interviewed on Tuesday night.
What the hell just happened? This is very sudden and severe news. Why is it closing?
I know it seems sudden and unfathomable to people on the outside. I’m so close to the numbers, it isn’t like that for me. The rest of the team have been part of a consultation process since mid-December. They’re fully aware. And, luckily, they are all staying until March 31, with the addition of some recent fixed term employees and the return of a couple of our best employees who want to be there with us too. We are going to go out in style.
Why? It’s quite straightforward. Vic Books has a revenue problem caused by a depleted University population. Yes, textbook sales have been declining over the years, but the imminent issue is how few people are on campus. We’ve reduced expenses and overheads as much as we can over the last couple of years. But it wasn’t enough. The lease was about to end, so we negotiated an extension to it so that we could still be open for the all-important start of Trimester One when students arrive on campus.
How many job losses will there be?
There are 11 permanent staff plus the fixed term employees.
About when did you realise the writing was on the wall?
The writing, or threat of it, has always been on the wall the entire time I have been in charge of the business. My first day was February 7, 2020. I was praying that the lockdown that was being indicated would be after the beginning of trimester start or we would have been finished then. Luckily it was in the third or maybe fourth week. And luckily there were wage subsidies.
This kind of anxiety – that the timing of events such as changes in traffic lights might come at unfortunately crucial periods for the business – has been the feature of the last three years. We’re not unique in this. It’s the same for event and festival planners. For so many of us.
Was it partly a case like Jacinda’s exit – the store had nothing left in the tank?
We have 10 weeks of sparkling energy left in the tank! Come and see us or pop online www.vicbooks.co.nz
“I remember Emily Perkins worked there and she sat under a poster of Edward Said … I just thought it was the coolest place.”
Did things pick up after Pipitea closed and your focus turned entirely to Kelburn?
Closing Pipitea was the right financial decision. Our losses were greatly reduced after that decision.
Were their mistakes made?
At the beginning of 2022 we decided we could invest in stock properly again. That is our one financial mistake.
The university campus is deserted a great deal of time. Was it ever likely Vic Books could survive and thrive just in Kelburn?
Remember hearing that it was a two-year problem? I bought into that rather hard. I guess we all did, it’s what we needed to hear to get through those extraordinary times.
It’s a changed landscape. Even if people return, it feels like Fridays working from home for instance is embedded and we all have to adapt.
Vic Books plays an important part within Victoria University. Were their talks with the University to try and keep it afloat?
We are very grateful to the University for their support particularly for the periods of rent relief. The University is a collection of staff and the University staff are upset about the news.
I gather VUWSA owns the business. Has it abandoned Vic Books; has it failed Vic Books?
VUWSAT (T for trust) owns the business. The trust has not had a return on its investment for over 10 years.
In tough times they have granted short-term injections of funds so that everyone is paid on time. They have been very supportive of the closure plan which focussed on student access to Tri One textbooks and being fair to our staff. I am very grateful to them for that.
How much of a role has the Occupation played in this? It ended Pipitea; did the effects of that linger, and damage the Kelburn store?
The occupation was very damaging for us particularly because of the trimester start timing. Luckily, we could shift everything up to Kelburn but sales weren’t what they would have been.
It isn’t just the occupation though. Working from home, learning online, it’s a changing landscape.
Vic Books was around for 48 years. 48 years! And now, no more. How to measure that history?
When I was a student at Victoria, Vic Books was in the student union building. I remember Emily Perkins worked there and she sat under a poster of Edward Said. That cool girl from TV and my intellectual hero. Together.
Honestly, I just thought it was the coolest place. And it’s so much better now. It is a splendid store.
I think so many alumni will have similarly fond memories and they will remember Vic Books staff who have gone on to be incredible writers.
Where do students get textbooks after you close, and is there another bookstore replacing Vic Books?
We are actively looking into options. Access to textbooks is the reason Vic Books was set up initially. This is a priority, but we don’t know what it will look like yet. Nor exactly who will provide it.
Ten weeks left. God. What happens now?
We have a lot of work to do! We’re about to go into the busiest time of year – we have textbooks arriving daily. We already have some stock on sale in store – textbooks that aren’t prescribed this year from $5 and cards on sale from $1.
It would be fair to say if you’re a book lover you should follow us for updates on our social channels but buying at full price is pretty darn cool.
Finally – how are you, Jess?
Thanks for asking, that’s really sweet. I’m not really sure. I think I’ll let myself feel it on March 31.