Wellington's Unity Books celebrates 50 years of vigorous discussion and critical thinking
As Wellington's 'literary centrepiece' celebrates 50 years those dedicated to Unity Books look to the future of 'intellectual culture', finds Jessica Long.
Unity Books is more than just a store filled with printed pages. It stands the test of time, at least that's what customers and staff at the Willis St store say.
A plethora of knowledge spans political, social and environmental issues, to unimaginable children's titles.
The pages stack the store's shelves and desks, complemented by comforting armchairs. "Walking encyclopaedias" find the books you're searching for, or discover the ones you should be looking for.
* Eleven-year-old Mansfield's first published work unearthed by Wellington author
* New Zealand's independent book trade is going to be OK
* Used bookstores are making an unlikely comeback
* Kiwis still love indie bookstores
* Kindles get the ability to flip through pages
But Unity Books co-owner Tilly Lloyd said the shop was not "just a cosy literary byway".
"The atmosphere in the shop is very vigorous, there is a lot of political talking and thinking."
The shop's success only mirrors the people, Lloyd said.
"None of it would matter if people weren't crazy about books, crazy about discussing them. I think that's where the secret is, in the customers."
For 50 years, people have relied on the independent store to source and stock some of the most important and ground-breaking books.
On Tuesday Unity Books will toast to half a century of customers, events, criticism and support, technology and trends. At the same time the store will launch its anthology: Unity Books At 50, made up of anecdotes from 17 authors who have been involved with Unity over the years.
"The 17 pieces ... serve as a welcome reminder of the role of independent bookstores as champions of writers and places of happy coincidence."
The home for intellectual thinkers evolved when Unity Books' founder Alan Preston's enthusiasm for history, politics and philosophy led to opening a hub for "expert book hunters", said Lloyd.
When Preston lost his battle with cancer in 2004 the commitment to his ideals stood fast and have continued to spread through the streets of Wellington.
Not much would change as time ticked on, Lloyd said. Unity Books would always be a place for people, conversation, and at the fore of serving ideas and interesting books.
"The shop's always been a literary centrepiece in the city, even when the city was full of bookshops.
"This is where the authors came and it still is."
'I need a bookshop':
Alan Preston was a sportsman with a history degree and a love of books.
He worked as an accounts manager for Smith's Bookshop and was studying philosophy when he thought "I need a bookshop", Lloyd said.
Unity Books launched in September 1967 in what was the Empire Building at 15-19 Willis St.
Preston's stock was "radical" and there was nothing he wanted to do more than talk about books, and their ideas as "vehicles for politicised thinking".
He imported American books, thought-provoking philosophy, beat generation materials and unique historical pieces.
In its early days the shop earned as little $20, or less. He was told: "a shop like this won't last".
However, Preston had a team of believers, particularly his father Cyril who helped run the store in its first 16-months.
By 1970, income expanded to $40,000 and book lovers formed a readers/writers community within the store.
"There was a sense of adventure rather than risk about starting up, but most of all I felt a challenge to provide serious, general reading," Preston wrote for the store's 20th anniversary.
In May 1972 the business moved to 42 Willis St where the Spark building sits today. It grew, and a third move was made to Perrett's Corner on Willis St in August 1986 before re-opening at 57 Willis St.
Each move coincided with the demolition of the former premises and the expansion of Unity Books' literary culture.
Preston intertwined authors and publishers involvement in the store and an era of book launches and impromptu parties was born.
He said the customers were "often interesting, informed and supportive, sometimes unusual, occasionally difficult".
Jo McColl and Nigel Cox opened Unity Books Auckland in 1989. Jo and Lawrie McColl then teamed up with Lloyd at the Wellington store following Preston's death in the early 2000s to carry on the store's ethos.
A rise in technology in 2010, such as e-readers caused many other independent book shops to close and led to adjustments. "That all blew over," Lloyd said.
Now, she said, they were toasting to the next 50 years.
Books are a passion, "an addiction" for Lloyd who started working for Preston in 1990.
"He was just a wonderful enthusiast. He gathered people up and let us loose on his shop ... I got absorbed into it and then I stayed."
Since then the landscape has shrunk, yet customers' deep-rooted love for physical books raged on, she said.
Award winning writer and Wellingtonian Elizabeth Knox remembers the first book she bought from Unity in 1979.
Seven Arrows by Hyemeyohsts Storm was a "delightful" new-age book written by a native American.
The bookstore had her hooked thereafter.
Knox's son Jack is a "Unity child" who grew up attending children's book launches enticed by tales, orange juice and table tennis tournaments.
Knox said the store provided "humanity education" and she was hopeful the future saw the "fantastic, civilised activity" of browsing the independent store continue.
Knox's partner Fergus Barrowman is known to Unity Books as a "religious customer". He has about 5000 books in his collection, mostly from Unity.
A least a couple are brought home with him every week.
"He's someone who believes in books," Knox said.
Since digital records began in 1993-4 New Zealand literature has trumped everything else people have bought in the Wellington store.
The Penguin History of New Zealand by Michael King is "still ripping along" with Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries.
Taking third place is Tu by Patricia Grace. "It's quite an important book," Lloyd said. Last is Big Weather: Poems of Wellington by Gregory O'Brien and Louise White.
"That says such a lot about where our hearts are."