Graeme Lay: Whitcoulls' demise is no surprise

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Photo / Greg Bowker
Photo / Greg Bowker

So the Whitcoulls chain is broke, its parent company, the aptly named RedGroup, chronically indebted. No one closely connected with the book trade over the past 20 years - writers, publishers, reviewers - is in the least bit surprised at this demise.

The once-proud, pioneering New Zealand company formerly known as Whitcombe & Tombs and which served the country's publishing and book-buying public so well for over a century had descended into a trashy chain in which first-rate books were marginalised in favour of celebrity biographies, stationery, greetings cards, DVDs and electronic playthings.

Bought and flicked on since the 1980s by men such as Ron Brierley, Eric Watson and Graeme Hart, money-men not renowned for their love of literature, the Whitcoulls brand became more and more debased. Its staff (abysmally paid, we now learn), were as unknowledgeable as its owners and unhelpful towards those who sought their aid.

New Zealand publishers and writers grew increasingly frustrated at Whitcoulls' refusal to stock their books or, if they did so, failure to market them effectively.

Even if books were sold, re-orders never came. Predictably, sales plummeted overall and RedGroup's owners began to drown in a sea of crimson ink.

Stories of Whitcoulls' ineptitude towards local literature became legion among New Zealand writers. For instance, after my first novel, The Mentor, was published, I went eagerly into the Whitcoulls flagship store in Queen St to see where it had been shelved.

It was nowhere to be seen. So without divulging that I was the author, I asked an assistant if she could show me where a new book, The Mentor, was.

She looked thoughtful. "Mentor. That's a kind of insect, isn't it?" And she pointed me in the direction of the Natural History section. "No, no, it isn't an insect," I protested. "Oh no, that's right." She thought again. "Mentor, mentor. Oh yes, that's right. It's not an insect, it's a creature. A half-man, half horse. Try the Classics Section. It's at the back of the shop."

Compared with today's hapless staff, this woman's knowledge was encyclopaedic. Since then things have got much worse.

When I compiled and edited an anthology of short fiction by young male New Zealand writers, entitled Boys' Own Stories, it required a lengthy search to discover a copy in the Whitcoulls store. Far from the Fiction shelves, it had been placed in the Parenting section.

In recent years, the firm's treatment of local fiction has become even more lamentable. Even potentially profitable novels have been relegated to obscure sections of the store, far to the rear of the celebrity biographies, cookery books, computer games, calendars and DVDs.

In 2006 another novel of mine, Alice & Luigi, was published. After a lengthy search, I found four copies in the very back shelves of the Queen St store, a shadowy section where it was unlikely to be discovered by a buyer.

Outraged, I picked up the four novels, carried them to the well-lit front area of the store and added them furtively to the stand on which were displayed "New and Best-Sellers". There Alice & Luigi kept company briefly with Dan Brown, Tana Umaga, Nigella Lawson and Jeffrey Archer. A few days later I looked for the four copies of my novel. They had all gone.

Sadder still was the fate of another book of mine, In Search of Paradise - Artists and Writers in the Colonial South Pacific.

A very large, lavishly illustrated work, I knew I could not fail to miss it in the Whitcoulls store. I did miss it. After an inquiry an an assistant searched for some time, its anxious author trailing after her.

We eventually found three copies, on the very bottom shelf of the "Pictorial" section, close to the floor.

When I asked why they had been placed there, where they would never be noticed, she replied cheerily, "Oh that's because it's such a big book. If it fell off a high shelf it might injure a customer and Whitcoulls would get sued."

The ray of sunlight shining through this book-retailing gloom is that our independent bookshops continue to provide wonderful service to authors, publishers and book-buyers. Their proprietors stock New Zealand books, display them prominently and are knowledgeable about them.

Forget about Whitcoulls and their wretched vouchers, and even Amazon.com. Instead, support our independent bookstores.

Graeme Lay is an Auckland writer.

- NZ Herald

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