Meet Tilly Lloyd of Unity Books

Tilly Lloyd sometimes wishes that Unity Books had CCTV to record the thousands of interesting things that happen there.
Tilly Lloyd sometimes wishes that Unity Books had CCTV to record the thousands of interesting things that happen there.

Just a few minutes early. Tilly Lloyd is not ready for this ordeal. Before she suffers it, she needs a fag on the footpath outside the magnificent Wellington bookshop-cum-institution she co-owns, Unity Books.

"I hate it," she says of the idea of a profile. "When you said it's just to be about me, did I say yes to that? Having done so, we'd better make the best of it."

Lloyd, of the wild fair hair and the serious glasses, can talk forever about books, authors, publishers and Unity. She's not great on Tilly Lloyd, but she has made a comprehensive list of biographical details to help ease her through talking about herself.

She starts at the beginning. Her childhood, she says, is similar to so many of her generation.

Just to break in on her story, Lloyd is heading for 59. She used to lie about it and say she was 10 years older, relishing the compliments. But she stopped when she was 54 and said she was 64 and the guy who asked – curious as to why Unity staff were having a nip of cognac at 9am – replied: "What are you doing about KiwiSaver?"

To put her in context, Lloyd was an early stalwart of women's lib, though she insists she wasn't in "the advance guard of theory or activists".

She is an avid reader, a lover of flowers and art, gay – her partner is musician Gloria Hildred – and a -woman Wellington powerhouse in the book business. She used to be a psychiatric nurse.

"So many people then went to school and uni and swapped into another line of work. It was a kind of a normal story for our generation."

Lloyd is now in Unity's bookish backroom, her eye catching a vase of once-beautiful pink and peach roses, expired since the last literary launch. She regrets their presence and consults her dutiful notes.

"This [her life] slightly follows that story except the first seven years were intensely peripatetic. I'm from Otago. My parents started out as what was then called 'the married couple'. The woman cooked for the contractors on a run or farm and the man would be the shepherd, or the contract fencer, or in good times, the manager. My parents were working down there, on runs in east Otago. There were lots of different places. That was exacerbated by the wool and mutton slump of '66, but determined mainly by my father's alcoholism. We had 14 addresses before I left home. No, 10, one three different times, in Palmerston."

Lloyd, christened Eileen Freda, says the matriarch of her family, her Aunt Joyce, still lives there, and other relations from a big, close, warm, Presbyterian family. She still has "50 first cousins running around".

Lloyd's mother, often very isolated, was intermittently unwell. "She had a few breakdowns and they were called breakdowns." She was an immeasurably kind person, says Lloyd, "So pretty much what anyone had done was their best. Isn't that amazing?"

Her father was "an incredibly fit guy who could lay a fence in a day, was capable with dynamite, and shearing ... and drinking heavily".

"Rural New Zealand in the 50s and 60s was hard, but definitely harder for others. Class consciousness comes from those times."

The three girls in the family did Correspondence School. "That was neat." The school canvas bag with marked work and homework would be tossed out of the train from the local line and the girls and their mother would drive there and hunt around for it. "We'd all listen to lessons on the radio at 9am and write our homework."

After that, she went to five different schools corresponding to her father's changing contracts. But the girls thrived. When their mother was unwell, they were sent to their aunties – "a typical European, Pakeha story". "They would take us in and raise us with their kids. We'd go to their schools. That was neat. The family would meet up again. There would be another contract, or Dad would luck out as manager of a farm. The fortunes of the family would gradually improve as he recovered from alcoholism."

Lloyd went to a "fabulous, better than average" secondary school in Palmerston and, desperate to get away, went to Dunedin to study psychiatric nursing.

By 1975 she was in Auckland – "with Fraser McDonald, all of us reading [Scottish psychiatrist] R D Laing".

"I'd always thought nursing was quite something. I wouldn't have known it at the time, but I think I was comprehending my family.

"These were the hippie days. We had some right old times in Auckland, subversive and exciting. I got married in 1975 to a dear boy. It lasted less than a year."

They shifted to Wellington. He was working in policy at the Department of Labour and scrub cutting, and Lloyd worked in Wellington Public Hospital's psychiatric unit and studied political science at Victoria University. She never finished the degree.

"I'm probably the only person at Unity without a degree. Ironic, isn't it.

"In a spirit of feminism we set up Hecate." Hecate was a health collective founded by a dozen women in 1979 alongside women's resource and lesbian centres in central Wellington. It lasted five years. Women went for help and advice and their experiences with individual doctors were recorded in "the hot and cold doctor files" for other women to peruse. It was not a popular move with the medical profession.

"These were politically dramatic times, feminist days, and we were around with our speculums. Women had bad experiences and we were working as midwives, social workers and nurses. We called the health system the medical industry and we wanted to be working outside it."

Their efforts were funded by grants and helped by a government work scheme. "It was very fulfilling and expanding. All sorts of women came for all sorts of reasons, the most privileged and underprivileged women."

Then Lloyd, at 24, fell in love, moved to Sydney to pursue the relationship, drove cabs and did a radio stint "as a feminist". "It was hilarious, outrageous and anarchistic." Sydney, like Wellington and beyond, "was in a foment of political debate". She and others squatted in an old Sydney hotel. Her conversion to feminism had not come "as a bolt of lightning". "It was just of course, this analysis makes sense."

When she returned to Wellington, she worked at the controversial Parkview abortion clinic and lived in Edward St above what used to be the Mexican Cantina in a huge old place that used to be a shoe factory. The clinic had opened in 1980 following the passing of the 1977 Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act. The clinic's clients had to be fewer than 12 weeks pregnant.

It was, she says, "truly something" to work alongside honourable consultants such as Carol Shand and Margaret Sparrow. "If only people had listened to them."

In the late 70s she was involved with the Women's Gallery, a collective of lesbian, feminist activists. Artists shown there had work published in A Women's Picture Book, which Lloyd co-edited with Marian Evans and Bridie Lonie.

"It was a lot of work and educated me a lot about the book trade."

In 1984 she was asked to run the "extreme and subversive" Women's Bookshop, set up by Porleen Simmonds in Cuba St. It was, says Lloyd, "a nonprofit-making part of the women's liberation movement. "While I was there, [NZ writer] Keri Hulme got the Booker [for The Bone People]. It was so exciting. We all went to the Java restaurant to watch it on the cooks' TV. We were so proud. It was a remarkable book for its time."

So Lloyd's early involvement with gay and women's rights has been a little more than just being "in the numbers", which is the way she describes it. Her strong feminist beliefs are still there but she's not about to hammer them.

Thoughts on gay marriage?

"For myself it isn't of great personal concern. I'd never consider it as an option. I don't think marriage increases a commitment, but I can see a lot of gay and lesbian people find this very important. There can be things that can be said in favour of assimilation and a lot in favour of being independent of it. It's something I keep track of. It's in the media a lot."

She doesn't want to disparage people who feel strongly about it.

Unity is a place of wide and high literary ideals, not a feminist hotbed. Lloyd's approach is wide and high. Her career in books included working as a rep for Century Hutchinson, which -dated Random, and then Penguin – where she started work in 1989 on the day the fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie. Twenty-three years ago she was offered a job at Unity, founded in 1967 by philosopher and sportsman Alan Preston, who died in 2004. Lloyd bought in to Unity a year after his death.

Early on she worked alongside Louise Wrightson and Marion Castree and a "bunch of amazing staff", many of whom were writers. "And so began, unexpectedly, my long, deep relationship with Unity Books."

Soon after she started there, she and her partner of the time moved up the coast.

For nearly a decade, she and Gloria have lived there. "We love Paekakariki. It has all the sticky bits of any small town but its advantages are great. It's a fairly artistic sort of town."

Home is one of the older bungalows on the edge of the sea. It has what garden can be managed so close to salt spray. A wall of windows looks out on the view and the white interior is rich with packed bookshelves and stacks of books. Lots more are in storage.

"The nonfiction is at home. I do read fiction, I just don't need to keep much on site. I get a lot of reading done. I can't help myself. A book in two days is not unusual."

She likes that Paekakariki is hemmed in by the sea and the cliffs. "It can't go up because we're all on septic tanks. Our village is safe from mindless development. I think we look after each other and the town well. There's a lot going on and a high IQ and it's quite a welcoming village. They say 20 per cent of the population in Paekakariki is gay and far more than 10 per cent are lesbians. They're just within the fabric. It's not like a lavender town.

"I like the intensity of the shop and the relaxation of the village. It isn't that I haven't thought about doing other things, but there's something at Unity that it's not just a business, not just a bookshop. I think I inherited that. I think we lean back on our good history all the time, though we're operating in the present and the future.

"Unity Books is lucky to have been kicked off by Alan Preston and advantaged by the people who managed it – Nigel Cox, Prudence de Villiers, Jo Harris [now Joanne McColl, Auckland part-owner of Unity] – and who he had in here."

In an ever-fiercer bookselling environment, Lloyd aims to keep renewing old loyalties and fostering new ones. "Our job is to keep this place animated and intelligent, like a desirable oasis. We choose the best people to work the floor. There are 13 of us and three do the buying. Our job is to be total book snobs and select the best of the stock offered to us [and the best of] everything around us, the events, atmosphere, authors and publishers." Still, she says, there's "no clear-cut recipe as to why Unity is staying strong".

Lloyd says she realised six years ago that "the tide was really and truly going digital". "I read on my iPad too, not on a Kindle. Kindle is Amazon and Amazon is anti-shop."

Though the ebook phenomenon has been slow to hit in the southern hemisphere, Unity has pre-emptively been selling ebooks since the end of last year. It has a well-used online bookstore. Chosen books are couriered out.

Beyond Lloyd, while she is talking, the shop quietly goes about its business. People browse or read almost as if this is a library of new books rather than a bookshop. Of course, she says, there is no pressure on browsers in what is an oasis with a commercial function. "That's vital. What's the point if people can't have a bit of a browse, and think, and come back.

"Sometimes I wish the shop was on CCTV because of the thousands of things that happen every day, vignettes per second. I constantly feel uplifted by the traffic here." She's anxious to get out there, among the books and the people.

"I hope not everybody puts you through this self-conscious palaver," says Lloyd in a subsequent phone call.

No. Nor do they all arrive so reluctantly but with their life neatly noted in chronological order and proceed to tell their story, chapter by chapter.