Well-known Parsons to close down

01:32, Feb 02 2014
OFF THE SHELF: Beatrice and Julian Parsons are closing the landmark bookshop started by their father in 1948.

Russian composer Igor Stravinsky called Parsons Books and Music ‘the most beautiful bookshop in the world'. Now the Lambton Quay institution is closing. Julian Parsons talks to Diana Dekker.

It's a day like any other in Parsons Books & Music. People browse, Bach drifts, a cake cools in the kitchen, the cafe is full. But it's almost all over for the 66-year-old Wellington institution. From Monday, all the books and music will be half price, and in a fortnight, the shop will close.

"It'll be a magnificent sale, a wonderful sale. We're full of treasures," says Julian Parsons too brightly.

Wonderful, yes, but welcome, no, and hard to believe when the shop is buzzing as it is. "If only I was imagining it," he says. "If it was booming, I wouldn't do it."

Parsons, 71, joined his father in the shop 54 years ago. "Each morning I unlock the door, the same door I unlocked 54 years ago."

Music was the bookshop's saviour when he introduced it on vinyl in the 1970s and changed to CDs in the 1980s when Lambton Quay rents were astronomical. And now music has contributed to its demise. Young people don't want CDs. If they want anything, says Parsons, they want vinyl - "they can be digitised without harm to your valuable LP" - and the classical music he favours doesn't routinely come on vinyl. It did when he first sold music in the 1970s, but was replaced by CDs. At their height, he stocked about 17,000 CDs. Now there are fewer than half that on the shelves he made to display them on. Added to that, no-one wants to buy a bookshop in the internet age, and he and Beatrice, his sister, who has run the shop with him, are at an age when the intense needs of the business are tiring.


So it's the end of a bookshop that is so woven into Wellington's cultural history that Parson says, "I'm aware that it's more than a bookshop".

He tells the story of Igor Stravinsky visiting and how the great composer, pianist and conductor travelled on to New York and, in an interview declared he had been to "the most beautiful bookshop in the world".

The place's very fabric is unique. Famous modernist architect Ernst Plischke designed the shop, including the curved staircase - a drawcard for contemporary students of architecture - and the big, central book table.

Harry Seresin, Downstage luminary and one of a group of cultured European newcomers to New Zealand, early on ran the balcony coffee shop where the local literati gathered.

Architect Plischke arrived in New Zealand in 1939, the same year as Parsons' father, Roy, and the two were friends. Parsons remembers him coming to dinner when he was a small child.

Roy Parsons was a courtly, silver-haired habitue of Lambton Quay until his death in 1991. He had been a banker in Britain - "a young Fabian, and restless in a class-ridden society. They wanted out and that's why they came. He saw war was coming and he hated what was happening in England. They were socialists and New Zealand had a Labour government."

Parsons' mother held a law degree from Oxford and later did a philosophy degree in Wellington.

Parsons did not initially intend to join his father. "I was going to do an apprenticeship in Coventry at Jaguar. Instead of that I came into the shop. It took a while to be seduced. I didn't know what I wanted to do.

"Later on I did a degree in philosophy at Victoria University, and I nearly went to engineering school. I was particularly interested in cars, but also bridge building. I would have liked to be an engineer. But then I would have missed out on books and music."

Parson's two brothers both followed their father into the book world, one in Auckland (the shop closed two years ago) and one, now retired, into publishing in Britain. Parsons' children have taken different roads. His son teaches philosophy as a Fellow at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and his daughter works in advertising in Sydney.

Happily for Wellington book lovers, says Parson as he bows out, they still have excellent independent bookstores - Unity, Capital Books, Marsden, Millwood and The Children's Bookshop.

Parsons will apprehensively be joining the ranks of the retired. He will see more of his wife, Rhonda, and much more of his workshop, perhaps work with wood - "practical things" - and settle with many books in his impressive Kelburn library with CDs spilling out beautiful music.

"I don't know how it will be. I suspect, talking to my brother, that the transition is difficult for the first year. It takes up so much of you to run a bookshop. Because it's been quite consuming, I don't quite know what it will be like."

He won't, like his father, be able to return nostalgically to the shop. He'll have no option but to break the habit of getting in somewhere between 8.30am and 9am each day and putting on the first CD.

"I usually start with Bach. I live with the world of music. It's been a treat."


The Dominion Post