Thursday, May 14, 2015

Nigel Cox on Whitcoulls

The 79th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the December 1994 issue. With Whitcoulls pulling out of its big Queen Street store in Auckland, to be replaced by a Farmers, here is a story welcoming the launch of that store in November 1994.

The intro read:
NIGEL COX looks over the new Whitcoulls superhypermegastore in Auckland’s Queen Street.
Okay, cards on the table: I’ve always hated Whitcoulls. Big, loud and thick – and that’s just their carpets. As a bookshop, a fine place to buy fluffy dice, My Lobotomy by some ex-All Black, confetti, or Jilly Cooper’s Advanced Jodhpur Spanking. Messy, confused (Wild Swans in the pet section), ill-informed (Pepys’ Diary? “Sorry, sir, this year’s diaries aren’t in yet”) but with enough clout to bat away the independents which I favoured (and worked for) like so many house flies. The book trade’s nicknames said it all – Big Brother. The Sleeping Giant.

It wasn’t always this way. When I was a kid I used to hang out at Whitcombe & Tombs (there were no malls then), fondling the books, deciding what to ask for for Christmas. Clean, well-lighted places, those old stores, and if there was an atmosphere of brown paper and string, well, that was because they knew you wanted to make a kite when you got home...

The mess developed gradually during the 70s when, after the acquisition of printers Coulls, Somerville, Wilkie, stationery became the chain’s big moneyspinner. “More than a bookstore” was the 80s slogan, which said it all, really: If only we could forget about books altogether.

The giant shuddered from its slumbers in 1991 when it was bought by the Rank Group, who already owned the Government Printing Office. Soon Rank was buying Croxley Collins Olympic and other stationers and then, with the see-no-evil assistance of the Commerce Commission, London Bookshops. The big brother jokes turned to dark mutterings.

But even the mutterers were silenced when in late 1992 it was announced that a massive new bookshop – “the biggest in Australasia!” – would be opened on Auckland’s Corner (the corner of Queen and Victoria Streets). “One of the best retail locations in the country,” enthused the Herald, and on it would be a bookshop so big that it would stock, surely, every book ever wanted by anyone. Cynics like me growled that, okay, maybe the books will be in there, somewhere. . . if you can find them.

If you don’t count a slight case of being burnt down in 1899, the building which stands on the Corner is over a century old, a three-storey version of it rising in 1893 to house the Direct Supply Company, who were general merchants. John Court bought it in 1912, and in 1916 another three levels were added along with the Italianate facade. It was John Court’s Department Store until 1972, when Cornishes had it for two years, before getting into financial difficulties.

From 1974 it traded as Auckland Corner Limited, home to Gordon Dryden’s Book Corner. This great independent (although all independents were great as far as I’m concerned) flourished for many years, but was finally allowed to degenerate in the late 1980s.

When Whitcoulls bought the beleaguered shop in 1988 it was a corpse that even corporate money couldn’t revive. Much the same had happened to the Corner itself, a mighty edifice reduced to a rat palace.

But that was before Big Bro started throwing dough.

October 20: Walking through the place with Whitcoulls’ general manager Greg Howell, I can see that nothing is ever going to be the same again. It’s 22 days to opening and there’s not a book in sight, but there are 70-odd men, sweating men, all wielding power tools with the kind of urgency that suggests that the penalty clause on this one is seven storeys high.

Howell steps briskly through the mayhem, shouting pictures at me. “Along here,” his arm sweeps, “there’ll be a giant fiction section, and over there, a huge New Zealand department.” The books I care about most, I see, are going to be on the ground floor’s prime space: interesting.

“In total, the new shop will have 65 percent more books than the old one.” He points to the mezzanine. “Up there, on this side, the biggest video store in Australasia; on that side, three times the magazines we’ve got in our present Queen Street store, and the Bookuccino Cafe.”

We clamber over sawhorses and cables. Up on the first floor, some of the shelving and stock are in place. The carpet, I’m forced to admit, is a great leap forward from the burnt-orange headache-inducer of old – it’s royal blue, with tiny white stars, and is divided by polished wooden walkways. The effect is (gulp) elegant. Howell says, “Up here we’1l have a thousand square metres of non-fiction, and children’s, plus a play area, and an information kiosk, with three staff members dedicated to providing the absolute latest on any book you’re interested in.” His enthusiasm, is contagious, even to one heavily inoculated against Whitcoulls’ charms.

We step outside. From across the road the repainted facade looks marvellous. “There’ll be two flagpoles, with flags, and,” he says, pointing to a little spire, “the eternal flame that used to burn in memory of John Court will be rekindled”, on the day the new shop opens. Nice.

Many New Zealand writers are worried that Whitcoulls’ dominance of the book trade will mean their books will have a short shelf life, or none at all. “Well,” he says, “we’re putting in 130 square metres of New Zealand books at ground level in the best retail site in the country – that’s quite a commitment.”

Okay, but won’t the big shop crush the independents, where new New Zealand writers are nurtured? “Well, finally, the customer decides that,” he says. “But in the main we expect the new shop to create new business.”

I come away from the tour excited and impressed but worried for the bookshops I favour. Unnecessarily, as it tums out. Jo Harris of Unity Books, unfazed by the prospect of a giant new competitor, says, “Even more miles of royalty, rugby and Jeffrey Archer – and you can buy a biro: terrific.”

Roger Parsons expects it to improve his business, by bringing more book customers in from the suburbs. “To a certain degree”, he says, “Dymocks have already done that.” And John Todd of Dymocks, describing his main competitor as a “variety store”, says that business has been “extremely good” and that’s how he expects it to stay.

Everyone seems to expect the new store to be just like the old Whitcoulls, only bigger. But walking over it, and talking to Greg Howell, I gain a strong impression that this is the beginning of a new era, with better decor, more depth of stock and sharper staff.

November 18: The carpet’s red, not blue, and the stars were in my eyes – well, it’s hard not to be dazzled by three floors of brand-new books. But then a hard look begins to show the light and shade. “The biggest video store in Australasia” turns out to be pretty small, but who cares about video? The Bookuccino Cafe isn’t going to worry the style-czars of High Street, but this is Queen Street; it’s not bad.

The New Zealand section isn’t large, but that’s only temporary – after Christmas, I’m promised, an area the size of a big lounge will stop selling plastic holly and poets like Curnow, Smither and Ireland will be in stock (at present they aren’t – a bit of a worry).

In fact, this isn’t a good shop to seek poetry in (Kipling, Keats, sure, but no Bishop or Larkin or Pound) or lit crit or other artnik-oriented items. Nothing much from small presses or that’ s a bit hard to get. But on the other hand there’s a generous and nicely presented range of all the main paperback imprints, will real depth in Picadors and Penguins and a solid range of the latest hardbacks. Solid, that’s an accurate word.

The store is well-signed, so you can find your way, and once you start looking through the various departments, all the non-fiction that you’d expect is there, in depth – health, business, reference – and mixed in, the odd really nice book at a good price; I saw an attractive-looking biography of Goethe at $10.95. But this isn’t a bargain store. There’s a few good opening specials (Once Were Warriors at $9.95) but clearly remainders will not be a feature.

The information kiosk is marvellous. Its staff hadn’t necessarily heard of the book you were enquiring about, or even its author, but there it was on screen so it could be ordered with ease, and yes, I could have a print-out of everything he’d written – 4½ pages of detailed bibliographic information, for no charge. Impressive.

The nicest thing was the lack of clutter. A Whitcoulls with room, and with the books presented as though someone who liked them wanted you to see them too. In fact the sense of attractively-filled space is one of the impressions you come away with – islands of books in light and air. As several book-trade old lags muttered, among the books themselves there’ s not much that surprises, which is a limitation. And the Whitcoulls’ slogan for the 90s – “always something new” – correctly suggests that the shop is light on backlist. But the average customer will, I think, be delighted by a clean, modem, general-stock-in-real-depth bookstore, and even margin-hugging cynics like me will be forced to admit this is a big step forward for the giant.

From out on the footpath, you can see that, yes, the eternal flame has been rekindled. Here’ s hoping.

FOOTNOTE: Nigel and I thought this was a very positive story but after publication Whitcoulls cancelled all its advertising – it had been a regular on the outside back cover – which was quite a blow for a little magazine. Fortunately, Dymocks and occasionally Random House came to the rescue for the next two years, bless them. And Wild Swans being put in the pet section of a Whitcoulls store is a true story.

1 comment:

  1. "4½ pages of detailed bibliographic information, for no charge. Impressive."

    Ah, the pre-internet dark ages...