The 84th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the January/February 1994 issue. The intro read:
Nigel Cox pays tribute to the quietly legendary Wellington bookseller Alan Preston.
Keeping the books
“After 10 years I did a tot-up and worked out I’d put 10,000 unpaid hours into the bookshop,” says Alan Preston, founder of Unity Books. Not that he’s complaining: “The shop’s been my marriage, really. But you don’t go into bookselling to get rich.”
We talk in the sunroom of his book-lined house in Eastbourne. It has a spectacular view of Ward Island, back-dropped by Wellington Harbour, but glancing around you get the sense that perhaps in this house most of the looking is done inward – into the books, many of them with neat slips marking particular pages. Lao Tzu, Spinoza, Emerson... and a little cluster of Wodehouses. Down on a lower shelf a printed card carries Thoreau’s advice about not worrying about keeping pace with others, because perhaps you “hear a different drummer”, which seems appropriate for a man whose bookshop seems always to have gone its own way.
A most successful way it’s been too – after 26 years, Unity Books is something of an institution among good readers. But back in 1967, with such capital as he had augmented by a few thousand dollars borrowed from relatives, the future was anything but assured: “On our first day we took $19.70!”
That first shop was in the Empire Building in Wellington’s Willis Street and will be recalled by those with long memories as long, awkward and skinny – “only four feet wide at the narrowest point”, he chuckles. His face fills with pleasure as he recalls the excitement of that time, when he embarked on what was to be his life’s work.
The launch of his own bookshop was something that, in hindsight, Preston had been preparing himself for since the beginning: “As a little kid visiting my grandmother’s place in Newtown, I’d be on the back of the settee, ordering the books on the bookcase, putting them round this way, that way, little private categories.”
Reading was always a big interest, second perhaps only to sport. He trained as an accountant, entering the book trade in 1954 via the accounts department of Gordon & Gotch. After stints at Whitcombe & Tombs, South’s Book Depot and the book trade’s old curiosity shop, Ferguson and Osborne, he felt impelled to hang out a shingle of his own.
From the first he had very definite ideas about what his shop would stock. “On the first floor at South’s there’d been art books, old Collins Classics, and more serious, rather more valuable books, but very few people came up there and found them – these good books weren’t being presented, I felt, to those who would be interested in them.”
Not that all this high-mindedness precluded a nose for business. “I’ve always said, perhaps cheekily, that I was trading in the holes that Whitcoulls left,” he says, grinning. Big holes, they must have been, and filled with eager readers. Unity grew quickly from the day it opened, and Preston was soon able to pay back the money he’d borrowed. At which point his relatives said, “Look, it’s working, you’re loving it, we’re loving it too: have the money.”
The book world’s gain has been the sports world’s loss. From 1955 to 1963 Preston played Plunket Shield cricket for Wellington and was twice included in the North Island team. He also played in tests for New Zealand against Australia at soccer. “In 1956 there was the possibility of sending a New Zealand soccer team to the Melbourne Olympics,” he says, “but in those days soccer was the poor relation – we couldn’t afford to go.” The same fate befell a proposed trip by the 1957 national team to South-East Asia.
The interest in books has proved to be almost all-consuming. Preston, who could never be described as conversation-reluctant, will be remembered by many of his customers for the thousands of hours spent in intense discussion about the ideas thrown up by the new titles. During the 1970s, completing an arts degree at Victoria University, he took a paper on New Zealand fiction so that he might better understand this growing aspect of his business. He became involved in the mechanics of the trade – when Denis Glover said he was having trouble distributing the books his Catspaw Press was producing, Preston agreed to act as wholesaler. Glover’s correspondence occasionally arrived on the back of labels he’d soaked from vodka bottles.
These days, with quarter of a century behind him and two shops to preside over (Unity opened in Auckland in 1989), Preston’s dedication to bookselling is as total as his involvement. “Recently, outside the Auckland shop,” he says, “I heard a couple of guys in business suits, mid-30s, and one was saying, ‘I can’t go past this shop. I have to go in there.’ And when I hear comments like that, I think, yes, it’s all been worth it.”
Not that we imagine he ever doubted.
Jo McColl’s obituary of Alan, who died in 2004, is here.