Topic: Best Bookshop in New Plymouth by Tony Beyer

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Abibliophobia, a recently coined term for the fear of running out of reading material, aptly describes the condition that has beset me since I became a conscious reader at the age of seven. From my teenage years, I recall evidence of the hereditary nature of this anxiety. My father, leaning with his hands in his pockets in the doorway of the bedroom I shared with two brothers, would cast his eye about shelves, windowsills, floor in the hope of spotting an unread paperback. Berating us for wasting money on books, he would then borrow the offending item, devour it in an hour or so and return it with the invariable dry comment that it “fizzled out.”

I credit him with passing on to me not only the appetite for text, but also the means of satisfying it. I learnt to read at three by sitting on his knee while he read the newspaper and asking him what the words in the headlines said. By seven I was reading a series of children’s magazines called Sunny Stories, my first obsessive attachment to printed matter.

What did I read as an adolescent?

War comics, 1s 3d or 1/3 in the old money (much to my father’s veteran horror), had already palled and I’d exhausted the dedicated stamina of the twelve year old who reads all the way through, in my case, Sherlock Holmes, Les Miserables, Great Expectations, Jane Eyre and Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Of course I fell for Ian Fleming in the fourth form, an age-grade passion I confirmed by finding him unreadable on a recent nostalgic reprise.

The insistence of the school I attended on our taking six subjects for school certificate forced me through the entire oeuvre of Agatha Christie during otherwise unendurable chemistry lessons. She has proven another author it is impossible to return to, although the illicit surge of distraction is very much present as I type this during a Professional Development session on word processing. In my senior school years J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man provided a blueprint of how I was to conduct my first (and, accordingly) brief attempt at university life.

Then in the later twenties, the thirties and forties, discussion of recent texts, fashions and foibles, is such a social delight and distraction that keeping up becomes expensive of both time and money. Fashionable reading is like smoking or excessive drinking; we look back upon it aghast at the waste. Now I’d rather have on hand a couple of thumbed-half-to-death Penguin classics than the whole current Booker list.

Books as commodities often seem to diminish in actual value the higher their retail price. Perhaps the increase in prices of new books has taken place proportionally, but it doesn’t feel that way. On the other hand, serious reading and serious earning are apparently mutually exclusive vocations: those who can afford new books don’t read and those who read can’t afford them.

Dylan Thomas described himself as a Penguin-educated citizen. I have had a more extensive formal education than that particular Welsh wizard, but still regard myself as Penguin-educated (specifically so, in that one of our university English lecturers devoted his allotted hour to reciting verbatim the introduction to the Penguin edition of whatever work we were studying.) The twentieth century cult of the paperback made genuinely fine reading material available to everyone and Penguin books were always in the forefront.

The importance of this to literary culture in the former colonies cannot be over emphasised. Nearly anything worth reading was published at one time or another by Penguin and many of their older products now languish overpriced on the shelves of urban second-hand bookshops.

This is not the case, however, at the New Plymouth hospice shop. Since I moved south and west six years ago, all my anxieties about what to read and where to lay my hands on it have been placated. There is a solid public library with decent holdings in non-fiction and some welcome fiction surprises. But down the far end of the recently expanded premises of the hospice shop, beyond the furniture, crockery, clothing, hats, knitwear, preserving jars, ornaments, toys, videos, cassette tapes and CDs, lies a veritable book seekers’ haven.

It’s true you have to search thoroughly in cramped conditions. Though there are divisions by subject, there is no alphabetical system and some spines are faded. The standard book price of fifty cents is very affordable. My whole shelf of Maupassant, in various translations and one in the original, comes from there, as does nearly everything I’ve read by Doris Lessing and Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Good non-fiction also abounds, in every category from mountaineering to mediaeval church history, gardening, travel, the World Wars, and the efforts of solo yachtsmen. Even my blind spots are well catered for: self help, medical enigmas, Irish childhoods, hunting and fishing, sports biographies, fortune telling, cacti and succulents, astrology, iridology (this list is becoming more interesting as it goes on) and colour therapy. It’s all donated, good and bad, lasting and ephemeral, abundance rather than mere sustainability.

Books still retain the advantages over computer text that they are easily portable and exchangeable, predate reliance on electricity, and can be used as fuel in conditions of emergency. I’m neither a collector nor a bibliophile. While I appreciate the appearance and heft of books as objects, and revel in fonts and design aspects, it is the content of a text that really matters to me. Nor am I too fussed, within reason, about the condition of the book, if it is legible.

As I age, I have come to prefer what I think of as more permanent books, ones which are never a waste of time: the English, American, French and Russian classics I should have read earlier. Other shoppers’ choices, often discussed at both length and volume, can also be intriguing. Adherents of Maeve Binchy or Catherine Cookson are complemented by quite young women with an inexhaustible capacity for Victorian fiction or Herman Melville (both shared favourites of mine.) Courteous but intense debate has at times been known to break out.

Recommending titles is always a futile practice because individual reading preferences are, in the true sense of the word, peculiar. Among the speckled Pans, Panthers and Penguins I can pursue at whim, and in sequence, Green Mansions, Greenmantle, The House With the Green Shutters, The Red and the Green and How Green Was My Valley, branching out from the last into a coal-mining excursion through Germinal, Sons and Lovers and Coal Flat. My younger granddaughter might benefit in passing from a copy of Anne of Green Gables.

Yet it is not only the books you bring home with you for a modest sum that make this quirky, serendipitous place of commerce and exchange such a delight. For the book lover, there is the quietly satisfying nostalgia of recognising titles and authors long forgotten: the Nevil Shutes, Joy Packers and Hammond Innes titles that my parents read, for example. I also enjoy the random reoccurrence of authors I know I will never read – Anita Brookner, Sidney Sheldon, Wilbur Smith (though it goes without saying I would defend with my life the right of anyone else to read them) – as well as old favourites no longer to my taste.

More than anything else, this institution is a charity, supporting the dying but also inadvertently acknowledging the passing and changing of culture by recycling its residue. I’m sure this is true of the movies and music on offer, as much as the books. What was once loved remains to be loved again, including the world-righting conversations of retired men who drop in daily for chance meetings and probably spend little, and the women who fossick among garments with the fixity of those making ends meet for a fair number of dependents.

The human village, resolute in the presence of suffering and death, shows its unmistakable face here.

So call in to 112 Tukapa Street, Tuesday to Friday, nine to four, Saturdays nine to one. You can’t miss it during opening hours because the car park’s always full. Staffed by tireless volunteers, Tuesday and Saturday mornings are the busiest, or any morning after a long weekend or public holiday has enforced abstinence.

The book section is a highly successful economic model. Neither reading nor dying is likely to go out of business. If you read something you don’t like, you can always donate it back for someone else to discover. I don’t know if I’ll ever read Charles P. Kindleberger’s earnest tome, The World in Depression 1929-1939, but nor do I know if I’ll ever again have the opportunity to purchase a copy, in good nick, too, for fifty cents.

To buy a book is to express the hope that one will live at least long enough to read it.

 

ABOUT THE WRITER: Tony Beyer is best known in New Zealand as a poet. He was recently an inaugural Aratoi Fellow at New Pacific Studio near Mount Bruce, Wairarapa.

‘The Best Bookshop in New Plymouth’ was written for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors (Bay of Plenty Region) with support from Tauranga Writers, and was Highly Commended by judges Susan Brocker and Tommy Kapai Wilson.

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The page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/GC38-HLQ8

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