How to open a bookstore in Petone

We revisit our occasional series on new bookstores around New Zealand with a portrait  of New Zealand's newest bookstore, Schrödinger’s Books in Petone, by co-owner Mary Fawcett.

Our bookstore was born out of a conversation outside the Lighthouse cinema in Petone. I can’t remember what movie we’d seen but I do remember that Nicki [Frances, co-owner] said, “I’ve always wanted to open a bookshop."

“So have I”, I said. At the time it was a throwaway comment, one of those thoughts that might come true in a parallel universe. Within weeks the idea had snowballed into reality.

We dreamed a while longer before we were fully committed to opening the shop. Early on we worked out that it would have a science flavour, and that it would be in Petone. We later broadened this out to STEMM: science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine, knowing that we would want to have something that appealed to everyone. Good-quality fiction, books for kids, but an underlying link to STEMM themes where possible. It would make us different to other bookstores.

We both love Petone village. Jackson St has a fantastic collection of funky cafes, friendly pubs and quirky shops in an eclectic mix of historic architecture. At the weekend, it’s a brunch destination for the wider region; during the week it is busy with locals. The library is a vital community hub but the booksellers had all but gone, apart from a small selection at the local PaperPlus. A quick sketch map to locate all of the other independent bookshops in the area showed there were none close by, and that Petone would be an ideal place to set up a new bookshop.

We took a road trip to visit Wardini Books in the Hawkes Bay to find out more about the realities of being a bookseller in New Zealand. These fabulous bookstores in Havelock North and Napier are owned by Lou and Gareth Ward, who were amazing and generous and answered everything we could think of, and told us a lot more.

We worked out that the worst-case scenario – if our shop wasn’t successful – was that we would have lost some of our retirement savings, have had a great experience, and would own half of a pretty good book collection each. But more seriously, we didn’t want to reach old age and regret never opening our dream shop. Fueled by Lou and Gareth’s knowledge and enthusiasm, we took the step of registering our company and drank some bubbles to celebrate.

Finding a suitable shop took a few months of searching TradeMe and the internet every day. Jackson St is a popular area. We saw some ideal premises and we also saw how quickly they got snapped up. We eventually found a shop in a 1920s building undergoing earthquake strengthening. The first time we saw it, it was part demolished and had no roof or frontage. But we could see that the space was amazing and we loved the exposed red bricks in the walls. We negotiated the lease, handed over the deposit, and drank some more bubbles to celebrate.

Inside New Zealand's newest bookstore.

Choosing a name took ages but when we came up with Schrödinger’s Books, it resonated. Partly for the science theme of the bookstore, and partly for the story behind it. You may have heard of Schrödinger’s cat. Or you may not have. Generally, we find half of the people we meet have heard of the cat, and half haven’t. The short story is that, in quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s thought experiment: a cat in a box with a vial of poison is neither alive nor dead until someone opens the lid to observe it. So we say: no one can tell if a book is good or bad until someone opens and reads it. It’s our job to find the great books and have them in our bookstore.

We always wanted to be a sustainable business, where it was possible. So we decided to look for secondhand fittings. We wanted our shop to have fixed shelving around the outside, but to be flexible in the middle, so we could move the furniture around to hold events: author signings, talks, craft events and book clubs. Our shop was to be so much more than just a place where books are sold. Our first purchase for the shop was a six-metre long Art Deco boardroom table, discovered by our friend Linda at a local op shop. It matches our Art Deco logo and branding perfectly. Our shelving was built by a local woodworker and artist, Alexander Wright. He cut all the rails for the shelving from native timber salvaged from skips and demolition sites: rimu, ngaio, totara and kauri.

Our first day open was a Saturday. We hoped people would want to visit a new bookshop but we really didn’t know what the reception would be. We shouldn’t have worried. We have been overwhelmed by the kind and excited response from the people visiting our shop so far. Many people had seen our social media, some found out by word of mouth or just passing the shop. We’ve been busy every day ever since, and people are still telling us they are glad we opened.

We’ve been open just over two months now. We still love the exposed brick, the Art Deco windows, and the trees and bench outside. We’d like to report that it’s all gone well, but it hasn’t all been plain sailing. The construction wasn’t complete before we opened and we had weeks of loud drilling and workmen swarming over the front of the building, as well as in the shop finishing off.

Would we change anything? Would we turn back time so that our chance comments about opening a bookshop never happened? Hell, no! Every journey has highs and lows. And an adventure without challenges isn’t interesting. We’re not out of the woods yet, but we are buoyed by the welcoming enthusiasm of the people visiting our shop, and being surrounded every day by the smell of great books.

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