How to open a bookstore in Martinborough

In the second of our occasional series on bookstores around New Zealand, former Act MP and eternal provocateur Deborah Coddington writes about opening her bookstore in the Wairarapa.

I could have enjoyed a retired life among the vines, escaping in winter to suck up champagne on luxurious cruises, but I cashed in my term investment and poured it into a bookstore in Martinborough. What the hell made me choose a so-called dying industry to compete with Amazon? My restless energy has never left me in peace.

I should have been driven insane back in the 80s, running a licensed restaurant in Russell with four school-age children living on the premises. Or perhaps it did, because I left a subsequent career as a feature writer at North & South magazine to compile The 1996 Paedophile and Sex Offender Index, and notched up death threats in the process.

Then (clearly certifiable at this stage) I jumped at the chance to be a list MP for the Act Party. Only angels know how three years in Parliament didn’t kill me.

And now here I am, at 66, the owner of the Martinborough Bookshop. It opened on May 11. Customers ask, “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”, and I pretend that they’ve never seen me before and I just have a very common sort of face.

After a life of writing, I view books as friends. At times they’re better company than people. When I opened my own bookstore, I never foresaw my angst upon handing them over to buyers. In my heart I was selling my friends, ones I’d spent hours drooling over, choosing carefully, carefully placing on my shelves, and proudly displaying. When I said goodbye I fretted whether they were going to good owners.

I was never this pathetic when my children left home.

The shop is housed in a large industrial space with a vaulted ceiling which for 70 years was Campbell’s Garage. A large plank covers the workshop pit. I found an original photo of the building and stylish 1930s Evening Post adverts of cars sold by Les Campbell to hang on the wall – Airstream Chrysler, Plymouth, a Fargo truck.

I’ve made embarrassing errors. Acutely aware that some years ago I was half a duo [ReadingRoom literary editor: with Alister Taylor] who were tarred and feathered out of the publishing industry [literary editor: rightly], I’ve been so paranoid about paying accounts that I messed a couple of distributors around by paying twice.

I’ve also broken my rule and ordered titles against my judgment. Normally I ask myself, ‘Will this be dumped at the church fair next year?’ If yes, I don’t take it. But weakly I’ve buckled to persuasive book reps and taken a few sports bios, or best-seller fiction. Not my market. I don’t love these books so I can’t sell them. I’m thinking of giving the suitable ones to the Howard League for literacy in prisons.

That’s just one advantage of being an owner operator – you can do what you damn well like.

And I’m damn well enjoying being an independent in a small rural town, where the positive support is extreme. It’s many a long year since Martinborough boasted a bookshop – in the 1970s, locals reckon. My store is beautiful, influenced by those I’ve haunted on trips to London, Texas, New York, and San Francisco. My books aren’t displayed with their backs to the customers, stiffly sulking in standing rows. Designers, I know, design covers before they consider spines, and book lovers feast their eyes on and caress glorious covers before opening them to study the endpapers and browse contents.

Random strangers assisted with décor, like a customer who suggested rugs for the painted concrete floor. Being a woman of definite ideas, I admit I was dubious, but he returned with three sumptuous, newly imported genuine Persian rugs, which now add warmth. Wellington sculptor Johnny Turner scoped the light and space and created a three-metre high Carrara Italian marble sculpture (for sale) which browsers skirt between children’s and young adult fiction.

This is perhaps the scariest venture I’ve undertaken but I’m loving it. Retirement can wait until I’m dead.

Previously in our series: Wendy Barrow on opening Red Books in Greymouth.

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