Linda Herrick is the Arts and Books Editor at the NZ Herald.

Women's Bookshop: Just loving what they do

When Carole Beu opened the Women’s Bookshop 25 years ago, she didn’t realise she would be creating something much bigger than a retail space, writes Linda Herrick.

From left, Tanya Gribben, Patricia Kay, Carole Beu and Mary-Liz Corbett at the Women's Bookshop in Ponsonby.
Photo / Richard Robinson
From left, Tanya Gribben, Patricia Kay, Carole Beu and Mary-Liz Corbett at the Women's Bookshop in Ponsonby. Photo / Richard Robinson

It's a Friday morning and Women's Bookshop owner Carole Beu and her colleague Mary-Liz Corbett are hunting high and low for their last copy of Mitch Albom's memoir, Tuesdays With Morrie. It was there; now they can't find it. As they know exactly where every single book is in the shop, they can only come to the conclusion, with some disbelief, that it has been nicked. But Beu hastens to add that shoplifting hardly never happens in the Ponsonby Rd shop because their customers are book lovers, not book thieves. But Beu and her team are the most avid book lovers of them all.

On Monday, Beu and co are throwing a party to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Women's Bookshop, a remarkable achievement, given the draining away over the past two decades of readers from real books to e-readers and the distractions of social media.

The shop opened on April 7, 1989, in ground floor premises on Dominion Rd beneath the offices of the Broadsheet feminist magazine. Beu - previously a teacher of English and drama at Auckland Girls' Grammar and Auckland Metropolitan College - had no retail experience at all and was blissfully unaware of the high percentage of small businesses in New Zealand failing within three years of start-up.

"People have said to me, 'Oh, you were brave, you took such a risk'," she says. "I wasn't brave at all. I had no understanding I was taking a risk but I was, in fact, when I look back now. I always thought I could have teaching to fall back on if it didn't work. I just learned by doing. I also discovered that I had all sorts of skills that, in the business world, they would send young men on special courses with fancy names to learn but which you already have when you've been teaching hundreds of teenagers and you've got two teenagers at home. You are quite good at organising, you've got good people skills, you can do more than one thing at once ..."

The name, the Women's Bookshop, was chosen because of its association with Broadsheet. "There were feminist book stores all around the world in those days and there were feminist presses in the 80s and 90s," she recalls. "Then the mainstream publishers realised there was money to be made out of women's books - a high percentage of book buyers are women, something like 70 per cent - and they absorbed most of the presses and publishers and many of them closed down. A lot of the small independent feminist bookshops gradually closed down as well, so we are a bit of an anachronism."

Beu says she owes her friends in the industry for helping her in those early days. Among a long list, she credits people like Helen Benton, who co-owned a publishing company with Bob Ross called Benton Ross (later Tandem Press), who walked her around a book warehouse in Auckland.

"Helen literally took me by the hand and said for your opening stock you need two copies of this, one of this, and three of that. She told me what to buy for opening stock."
She laughs. "I can still remember the shock the morning after we opened. We had an evening function and I sold books! And the shock the morning after when I had sold out of some books and had to re-order things."

The Women's Bookshop stayed in its Dominion Rd site for 10 years. The first year was successful but, says Beu, "things got tougher later".

"There were times when I would wake up in the middle of the night and worry about the cashflow and not being able to pay the publishers by the end of the month. But in the early days it went really well. I think I was ordering very small quantities."

After 10 years, the shop's lease needed renewing and Beu's lawyer asked her if she'd ever thought about moving, to drive around and "have a think".

"I drove along Ponsonby Rd and these premises had 'for lease' on the front so I rang them up and, suddenly, it happened. One of the fondest memories I have of the whole history of the shop is the actual move. My customers moved the shop and it was the first time I understood that what I had created, by chance, was much more than a bookshop. It was bigger than that and there was a sense of community ownership of it. "Phil Hosking came from Random House with loads of flat cartons and he spent the whole morning taping them up and handing them to people to fill with books. We had people - all friends and customers - with trailers and vans and we gave them sections each. People filled up their vans and drove here and filled the shelves. It went so fast, it was a one-day move."

Moving to Ponsonby Rd consolidated the business, with men now "coming in, hugely", and technology improving its stock control system.

The shop also has a thriving online retail presence. The Women's Bookshop hosts book clubs, with groups from all over the Auckland region. Beu and a team of volunteers also stage the Ladies Literati events, mixing a panel of women writers with lavish afternoon teas. Through book launches and the Ladies Literati, Beu has met writers like Margaret Atwood, Andrea Levy, Sarah Walters, Fay Weldon, Kate Atkinson and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

The big thing, though, is that Beu and her staff - manager Tanya Gribben, and part-timers Patricia Kay and Mary-Liz Corbett - love "hand-selling" - talking to customers about books.

"There was one man who came in several years in a row before Christmas and asked, 'What are the best six novels you have read this year?' I would point them out to him and he would buy all six for his wife and he'd read them, too. He was trusting my judgment. I had one person from Waiheke who would ring up and describe each person in his family and ask me to find them books, to match the book to the person, and send them over."

Beu says the Women's Bookshop is not alone in its success, pointing to independents like Unity Books and Timeout. "There was a book seminar in the States a few weeks ago and the statistics are really interesting. E-books have plateaued and all of the good independents are all up about 9 per cent or 10 per cent, so it feels like a corner has been turned."

Beu laughs when she says a lot of business courses talk about having "goals". "I don't think I've ever had a grand goal. My goal is to keep going.

What I would love to do is keep meeting the writers I meet. I love what I am doing every day and I hope I will meet these fantastic women until the day I die. Or until I stop running the bookshop, anyway."

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- NZ Herald

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