A lament to the lost world of bookstores

Another local bookshop has become memory here in Wellington this month. Bennetts Government Bookshop announced it’s closing its doors.

Roy Parsons’ window – a Wellington institution for over 50 years and still going strong in 2012. I had to take this picture on a Sunday, usually the street’s crowded.

It’s the sign of a new age. Five years ago there were seven bookstores down the golden mile of Lambton Quay – the top retail street in New Zealand. You could conjure with their names; Parsons, Bennetts, Borders, Whitcoulls and Dymocks, a second hand store packed with great titles and a Paper Plus tucked away in a micro-mall. Today Parsons are still there – and coming up for their 60 year anniversary. A solid shop with quality books. Whitcoulls – after restructuring – it’s operating from the old Borders store. Paper Plus is about to enter rebuilt premises.

And the other four are gone. Gone.

It’s the harbinger of a changed world. The name of that world is Amazon. Mass market paperbacks are on the way out. Coffee-table books – they’ll survive in print, I think. Expensively.

Trad bookstores still sell books… for the moment.

But as we sit there with our tablets, our Kindles, our Kobos and our phones, I cannot help feeling a pang of loss for books that are tactile, for new books carrying that smell of printers’ ink, for old books opening in a cloud of dust, carrying all the promise of much-loved reading.We live in an age of tech miracles, and the death of paperbacks and bookstores is the price of that change, I guess.

But I’m going to miss it. I’m going to miss the time when buying books meant going into a store and talking to someone – an expert, a book-buyer.

I’m going to miss the way we used to be able to leaf through books on those shop shelves, musing, pondering. That tactile, physical experience of being able to select – then take that physical object, pass over other physical objects, and go home with the book in a paper bag – all the while anticipating the pleasure of reading.

I’m going to miss the way we used to be able to take our favourite paperback novel and read it, re-read it and re-read it again, while the pages got dog-eared and the spine bent and the cover battered. Sure, we can still do all that for now. But it’s a vanishing world.

Actually, I’m missing it already. Are you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

10 thoughts on “A lament to the lost world of bookstores

  1. God yes I already miss the bookshops of old that we used to have here in Christchurch. I don’t think there was anything like exploring a bookshop for old books, those old established haunts and aura of their own along with the dusky smell of books.

    I lament the change in new libraries, to me perhaps being an old fuddy duddy there was nothing like sitting in a library and reading a book with that peculiar silence that the old libraries had. These days they tend to be community centres and or coffee shops and so to me the magic has gone.

    As for E books and the like, sadly I will remain a dinosaur, I cant see myself sitting up in bed and reading a tablet, sounds more like something I should be taking not reading.


    1. I agree – and I guess Christchurch has been doubly hit because of the way the quake destroyed the central city. The Wellington public library is definitely more community-and-coffee than library. Here in Wellington there are a few antiquarian bookshops, and there’s a great second hand/sf-focussed store, Arty Bee’s. Up in Napier there’s ‘The Little Bookshop’, which sells nationally…but they are few and far between. Sigh.


  2. There was a line in a book I read once about friendships that sometimes come about in bookstores, something to the effect of those surrounding the “poor scholar in search of an inexpensive volume, and the affluent scholar in search of the rare one”. The context was a specialist occult book store if I remember correctly. Somehow I don’t think it’ll be possible to use Amazon for that sort of networking. Or that delightful little dance you see people do — they sidle past one another in front of a bookshelf without, apparently, being aware of anything other than the book they’re reading.

    Or the pleasure of reading a book while drinking coffee in a bookstore/cafe.

    There are pleasures to be had online but not of the same type, and mostly they are lonely. I don’t like the idea of bookstores passing into memory. They’ve been too much a part of my life.


  3. Yes, yes and yes! I’m already missing good bookshops. As one of the above comments mentioned, Christchurch has been doubly hit and whenever I visit there I miss what in my opinion were the best second-hand bookshops in the country. Sadly, the kinds of buildings they rented were the older ones that didn’t fair so well in the quake and I doubt there will be cheap rent for retail businesses in that city for decades.

    I’m lucky in Dunedin where a few excellent second-hand bookshops remain but the only really decent store left for new releases is the University Book Store.

    I think of all the discoveries I made by chance in bookstores, thumbing through a few pages of a book I hadn’t heard of before and knowing instantly that I’d found a new addition for my library. Those discoveries might sometimes be harder to make and I do worry about how the reliance on the likes of Amazon might impact on the exposure of locally written material to their own communities.


  4. Of late, I find myself browsing my own bookshelves, looking for a book I’ve not yet read or never finished. I have books on my Kindle yet to be read as well, and while I find that reading experience much easier on the eyes, I am increasingly saddened as bookstores fade from existence.

    This may just be a north Florida phenomenon but where I can browse (as well as donate) are the Goodwill bookstores that offer the infrequent new book. Often I find Joan Didion’s Book of Common Prayer next to the Bible; I find some wonderful treasures in these stores. I have been donating my books regularly for they still have more than a few good reads left in each one.

    My comment is a bit off-topic but with just a few exceptions, most of my bookstore haunts have closed so I have begun looking elsewhere. I believe the bookstore lament will linger longer than most suspect.

    Fine post, Matthew.


    1. It’s wonderful to be able to pass on a good book knowing that somebody else will derive pleasure from it. And no question about the discovery of others’ reading treasures in the same stores. There are some great shops of this ilk in New Zealand – including one in Onehunga, Auckland, called ‘The hard to find bookshop but worth it when you get there’. It’s true, too! A wonderful shop, filling many small rooms, with books stuffed into every possible space, ladders to reach high shelves, and that wonderful smell of old books. I don’t get to Onehunga very often, but when I do – well, I don’t think I have ever left that shop without some gem or other I’ve discovered.

      The last time I was there, incidentally, I picked up a copy of Rick Wakeman’s autobiography, “Say Yes!” A wonderful book – very funny, its title partly a reference to his band (“Yes”). But it also summed up his approach to life – the book told the story of how he got there. Wonderful stuff. We saw him in concert here in NZ about six weeks ago, and his optimism, energy and enthusiasm shone through. To me, underscoring the power of ‘positive’.


  5. Reblogged this on Naimeless and commented:
    Sadly it reminds me of more than one bookstore in Brandon, MB Canada. While I do read ebooks, I still buy print copies, and the used books I’ve found in more than one local book shop are some of my favorites.


    1. The interesting part about the demise of the Wellington stores is that it’s the chain outlets that have gone. The indie store down that street is still there, and flourishing; and another indie a little way up the road recently doubled in size. Which is good news – reflective, I think, of the marketing smarts, good book-buying policies and good repute which is possible from a really well run indie. However, on the down side, their survival and expansion hasn’t equated in scale to what has been lost – the total market overall has shrunk dramatically. Part of the appeal of e-books, I think, is to do with cost. Print books are great, but they might be ten times the price of the same thing for an e-reader, and these days, that counts. Kind of sad in a way, but I suppose one of the realities of the reading world.


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