Miracle on St Benedicts Street
When the owner of Auckland's famous Hard to Find Bookshop was facing bankruptcy and out of options for a new home for his 90,000 books, he asked for a miracle. And got one.
Warwick Jordan runs an oily rag business but he's never been in it for the money and never will be. Second hand books don't make a profit, "but that's okay". The shop feeds his obsession to own every book in the the country. "I don't mind selling them and it seems to make other people happy, but my obsession is collecting them in the first place.
"I'm an enabled hoarder."
Until now he's been based in Onehunga where, if you knew where to go, the shop wasn't too hard to find. (The name refers to both the geography and the product.) But his building was sold and the new owners wanted a commercial rent.
"We were doomed. I was going broke. We were closing down, with no Plan B," he says. His quest to find alternative premises had failed, even with a wildly successful boost from a Give a Little page that brought in $27,000 from book lovers all over the world. The moral support from the public was fantastic - "I had been expecting a backlash really along the lines of 'what sort of idiot wants to run a bookshop'." But it wasn't enough to rent elsewhere. He'd written to everyone he thought could help and was at the end of his rope when he acted on the move he'd held in reserve - contacting the Catholic Church.
Jordan is not Catholic.
"We'd bought books off Catholic priests and had bought a massive stash from St Benedict's at one stage. I wrote to the Bishop and said 'I need a miracle. I understand the Catholic Church specialises in miracles - can you pull one out of the bag for me?'
"Bishop Pat (Dunn) wrote back and said he'd put it before the property board, but a couple of weeks went by without hearing and I thought we were screwed. We were looking at how we would wind up." The Dunedin Hard to Find - repository of all Jordan's online stock and the biggest such outfit in Australasia, with half a million titles - would have gone too.
And then, the miracle. The Church's property manager showed him a historically listed building across from St Benedict's that was once the home of Mary MacKillop - Australasia's only saint. With its high ceilings, plaster domes, huge windows allowing light to flood in, and polished floor boards, it had all the character he was looking for. It was in poor condition but had the rent to match. The Give a Little fund became the moving budget, and Jordan hiked to the bank for a substantial loan. A lot of hard work - including installing two kilometres of timber shelving - later, and he reopens today.
The shop's theology section is housed, naturally, in the former chapel, where there's a pulpit for added atmosphere and notes about St Mary MacKillop. "We wanted to honour her - we're her guests, I think it's appropriate. Her thing was about education and supporting knowledge to all people. She was a strong person who sorted people out ... I love people with strong characters. Up to a point."
The children's section is inside the former confessional, and there will be a special Harry Potter section in the cupboard shelves under the stairs. There are a couple of sofas - he doesn't mind if people stay and read, although the odd customer has had to be "shown out with a pointy stick at the end of the day". Jordan says the new premises is organised better - the old one evolved. He did find in the move a couple of books that have been around since forever but says most stock turns over, eventually.
There is however unlikely to be a lot of foot traffic in the new place, which is surrounded by car parks but isolated from other retail outlets. Does it worry him, that it will be too hard to find?
"I'm terrified!" he says. "Are people going to come here or are we going to be sitting here staring at the tumbleweeds going down the road? It's a big step up. It's magnificent - part of me thinks 'How can this fail?' but you just don't know ... we could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. We're a bit like the New Zealand Cricket team. It's scary stuff." It is easy to drive to though, at the centre of city motorway hubs - and the Onehunga bus stop is just up the road.
The rise of charity bookshops is also a threat - Jordan thinks they'll be the death of second hand book enterprises. Jordan says in some cases the books given to charities free are sold online for huge profits; other books are thrown into a skip if they're not in immaculate condition, in spite of the value of the material; and he's competing with operations that have volunteer staff, are tax exempt and are undercutting bookshops.
"I just wish people would take their books to a book seller. Ideally, me," he says. "I'll give them money for the books and they can give that to the charities. That way we're helping the book world, and the charities."
Don't be surprised though if he talks you into keeping something of grandma or grandad's old library. Jordan will often talk people into holding on to a few volumes that remind them of their loved ones ... and if he feels he's underpaid for what turns out to be a more valuable haul than expected, he will go back and give them more money. "That happens about half a dozen times a year."
His favourite book ever? "I have lots of them - Crime and Punishment, Moby Dick, Bleak House, Catch 22 - I read all over the place and have no taste at all. I read everything, I'll read the Weetbix packet." But success or otherwise, he says he will do this till he dies.
"Im the captain of the Titanic," he says cheerfully. "But I couldn't imagine doing anything else."