How to open a bookstore in Twizel

In the third of our initially occasional but now seemingly regular series about bookshops around New Zealand, Renee Rowland tells of opening The Twizel Bookshop.

Owning my own bookshop was always a dream. Like winning Lotto or going on holiday to the moon. It was never something I purposely worked towards, just something to dream of.

I went to school, studied, read a lot of books. Went to Europe and worked in corporate comms. After nearly a decade of that I decided it was time to get a life. I bought a bicycle and pedalled for 18 months in a south east direction, buying myself a liminal period. It simplified life: food, water, shelter and books. I reread Harry Potter while crossing the Chinese desert. Found comfort in Middlemarch on the cold nights of the Iranian desert. Was consumed by Cormac McCarthy when crossing the Nullabor.

Then I visited small towns and small bookshops in Tasmania, and thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be nice.’ As I got closer to home, I decided to find a job in a bookshop and enjoy simple things. A fixed abode, cups of tea, conversations with friends, bookshelves and gardens.

I finished the 33,000km bike ride in Spring Grove, Nelson, and wrote earnest letters to bookshops looking for work. No one replied.

Following my nose I headed to Twizel for a summer to clean holiday houses. It’s a South Canterbury town, a stone’s throw from the North Otago border. The resident population is about 1200. But on any given day you’ll find cyclists on the Alps2Ocean trail, walkers on the Te Araroa trail, stargazers for the International Dark Sky Reserve blanketing the Mackenzie Country, rowers cutting the water of Lake Ruataniwha training for Maadi cup, anglers finding paradise on the side of the hydro canals, boaties enjoying Lake Benmore, tahr hunters haunting the hills, and icebergs calving on the glaciers in Aoraki Mt Cook National Park.

My first summer was house-cleaning, jumping in the Twizel river to cool off, and swimming in Lake Ruataniwha long into the evening. Climbing the staircase to Mueller’s hut. Hiking up Ben Ohau I realised I’d fallen in love and that somewhere between the tussocks, lupins, wilding pines and turquoise water, I’d made a home.

I decided to stay and open a bookshop. I was determined to give it a go, one shot at what I loved and what I knew.

I found a space in Twizel’s marketplace: a very small space, 12sqm next to Jake’s Hardware. The Twizel CBD also has a fishing shop, pharmacy, two Four Square supermarkets, bank, gift shop and fashion outlet. Underneath the spectacular town clock there’s the office of the Mackenzie District Council, which triples down as a post office, information centre and help desk.

I made shelves out of MDF and plywood. My first attempt at a window display was a selection of books that had been movies, decorated by floppy, lacklustre paper decorations. Inside the shop, the books sat face out on the shelves to hide the space needing to be filled. Half of them were secondhand from my own collection.

Inside New Zealand’s smallest bookstore, all 12sqm of it.

The Twizel Bookshop opened in the winter of 2017. Nothing was ready except the books.

Fast forward two years. On Monday mornings, kids count in te reo during Fluffy Bookclub. A neon light glows warmly with BOOKS all night long, bunting flaps gaily across the ceiling, the shelves are tightly packed and books overflow from stacks and baskets on the ground. There are vintage editions of Russian classics, five different editions of The Handmaid’s Tale, rare and out of print books that tell the histories of old New Zealand farming stations. There’s a strong representation of local and self published authors, books that tell the story of Twizel.

Today the Twizel fog has settled heavily, and another round of hoar frost is beginning. The town is bustling with ski bunnies and holiday makers. Between customers we’re packaging up phone orders for Kevin Freeman’s Diesel Dust Men & Machine, a book about the vehicles and the contractors of the Hydro Scheme. A new shipment of Anna McNuff’s Pants of Perspective has arrived: the story about a British woman who came to New Zealand and ran the Te Araroa trail by herself is our all time best-seller (probably because we’re the only bookshop in New Zealand that stocks it).

A customer has just bought a secondhand copy of A Painted Veil for her niece, the new Ian McEwan for herself and one of our tote bags. Our secondhand stock is running low. We’ll have to leave town to scout for more books soon. But for now we’ll stay warm inside, surrounded by books.

Previously in our series: Red Books in Greymouth and Deborah Coddington’s bookstore in Martinborough.

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