A Children’s Bookshop in New Zealand: One Family’s Enterprise

dorothy butler A Childrens Bookshop in New Zealand: One Familys Enterpriseby Dorothy Butler

The fact that the story of my bookshop cannot be separated from the story of my family is hardly surprising. Given simultaneous ambitions to enjoy the childhood years of eight children and to establish a book business, one is not offered a choice; the area of overlap must be considerable. In my case, the two did not overlap as much as intertwine; they became inextricably enmeshed. That the combination worked — that the family and the business proved to be mutually nourishing — pleased me beyond measure. But it did not surprise me. What right-minded child would dislike having his living room dotted with bundles disgorging fascinating books from the other side of the world? Certainly, not one of my children ever gave evidence of displeasure, as the house gradually filled up with books for sale. Parental expectation is clearly a strong force in the forging of attitudes. And what could be more reasonable than to assume that a child would move over to make room for books?

I became addicted to books as a child — to the sight and the feel and the smell of them. I was born into a working-class family where books, while not in abundant supply, were at least read. Of love and good humor there was plenty — and a mother who told us true tales of her own childhood at the turn of the century in the old gold-mining town of Thames and who taught us that through stories it is possible to be transported to another world. Our home boasted that once-common shelf of classics which, I suspect, demonstrated a deep working-class respect for unattainable scholarship; and I read these in a series of resolute sorties from a very early age, only half-understanding but determined to press on. And something of the strength and structure of well-fashioned prose must have seeped into my bones and remained, for I still love those old books.

School in the 1930s, notwithstanding its rigidity and bleakness, was a revelation to me. We had books — and The New Zealand School Journal of heady memory; and I learned to love language committed to paper. Somehow I stayed at school when my brother, a year older, left at fourteen to augment the family income. I mowed neighbors’ lawns and spent my earnings on books. I still have them: tattered editions of Dickens, Austen, Scott, and the Brontës. I went to the university and trained for secondary teaching; then I married and, within a few years, found myself surrounded by a growing brood.

Those were wonderful years. Roy, my husband, built our house — to begin with, a three-room cottage — on a sprawling half-acre of land. We had neither refrigerator nor washing machine nor hot water system until we had four children, but we all flourished. I loved the freedom of running a home — planning one’s own day, dreaming up ways of improving things, and enjoying the wonder of each very different child. I came to see, years later, that all this was good training for running a business. Qualities needed: optimism, a capacity for sustained hard work, an eye for what must be done first, and a love for the product!

By late 1963 I found myself working, three days weekly, as supervisor of the local play center, a parent-centered preschool at which our two youngest children were enrolled. This period proved to be one of the happiest of my life — a formative, expanding time, during which the years I had spent at home with my own children seemed suddenly to have been a preparation for  involvement with a wider and more diverse range of parents and children. I found myself almost continuously exposed to parents — especially mothers — of limited background and education, people who wanted to provide the best for their children but who had no way of identifying “the best” in practical terms.

I think it is true that any group takes on a flavor which stems from the interests of the person at the top. It is certain that Birkenhead Play Centre soon had the best picture book library in the Auckland preschools. More significantly, it housed a growing body of adults who were daily witnessing the happy interaction of young children, parents, and good books. The adults’  experience with the effective use of picture books inevitably led to a demand for books of their own. I met this demand as well as I could, making constant trips to Auckland booksellers, who allowed me to take boxes of books for resale to parents. I began to fill requests for books for “a seven-year-old boy” or “a twelve-year-old girl” and to feel that I was helping in a real way.

We had managed, despite the numbers at home, to build a small study-sitting room opening off our bedroom to which I used to dispatch exhausted mothers during Play Centre sessions, with the suggestion that they make coffee and settle down with the books. Their growing astuteness as to what constituted a good book, their perceptiveness and their joy in discovery delighted me. I learned then what I know now — that adults who are ignorant of the intricacies of literary criticism can easily learn the features of a successful story if they are equipped with an audience of ,very young children. For the very young are superb critics; they combine ruthless honesty with unconditional receptiveness. Children do not care to be taught, advised, cautioned, or blamed in their books; they want to be entertained. The best books can be invigorating, ultimately producing human beings who number among their responses to the world that readiness to wonder, to love, and to laugh which is the hallmark of the mature personality.

The bookshops in Auckland at this time showed a lamentable lack of children’s books that I knew. For years I had been compiling my own catalog, noting all the information about the books which came our way from libraries, schools, and other sources. By the time I found myself lecturing for the Adult Education Department of the University of Auckland — at first on play and thereafter on children’s literature — I knew, beyond a shadow of doubt, that there was work for me in the world; for me and for all other adults who cared about children and books and the gulf between them.

It was known that I rode a permanent children’s book hobbyhorse, and several publishers had become aware of my existence. I was constantly asked to arrange displays of children’s books to accompany lectures and courses, and I began to tap the publishers’ Auckland stock. I suppose the suggestion that I start selling books was inevitable. I was at that time teaching evening classes in School Certificate History and in English. I discussed it with Roy. ‘‘I’m already running what constitutes an advisory service,” I pointed out, “and that way, I’d have some hope of providing books I know would work in particular cases.” Roy, always supportive, agreed, merely pointing out that as I had just enrolled for a postgraduate course in education at the university, I was likely to be busy. He didn’t expect me to be deflected, and I wasn’t.

There was no possibility of finding capital; but this did not seem a drawback. We had always lived comfortably in a do-it-yourself way. I had no intention of separating myself from the children, and so the business premises were, of necessity, our living quarters. The book business was to be a hobby; once the children were truly launched, I planned to return to teaching. Judicious  rearrangement of the family library made room for the first influx of books for sale. I would order very carefully, I decided, paying my bills as I went.

Almost immediately, I realized that if I were to stockthe best” I would need accounts with all publishers. I wrote or called, outlining my plans and seeking their cooperation. Since then several of them have told me that they were impressed with my knowledge of their lists; I suspect that they charitably overlooked a certain arrogance. I would stock books in which I had faith — not necessarily those which, the publishers assured me, sold well. Without exception they were helpful, encouraging, and — I now realize — very trusting. Many of them have become my good friends.

My existing contacts with schools and preschools certainly eased my path into bookselling. Conducting workshops, lecturing at teachers’ in-service courses and at training colleges, talking to play center and school PTA groups in the evenings — all of these activities, enjoyable and rewarding in themselves, helped nourish the growing business. And startlingly, the selling process proved enjoyable to me. I found myself stimulated by the challenge of making ends meet — with, I hoped, something left over.

My memory of the early days is permeated with recollections of my family: of the four youngest helping to load the van before I dropped them at their schools; of the way publishers’ jargon passed into the family vernacular (“Must be out of print,” said our five-year-old, when I explained my failure to procure a particular brand of toothpaste); of Roy, processing newly arrived books at our large dining room table every evening — often until midnight — and issuing dire threats to predatory children about the consequences of helping themselves before the work was complete; of admonitions concerning overenthusiastic and underinformed advice to customers. A teacher-librarian who still buys from us recently reminded me that one of my lads once volunteered the information that in his bedroom he had the last copy of a book she wanted. “If you don’t mind waiting while I read the last chapter, you can have it”; she didn’t, and the deal was clinched. I heard her later tell a librarians’ group that Butlers’ was the only place she knew where you could buy a book “hot off a bedside table.”

The business grew, the children grew, and so, necessarily, did the house. Initially, we doubled the size of the original study-sitting room. Then, after several years of coping with the need to move massive numbers of books before we could go to bed, we extended the family living room and, equipped with a double divan and shrouded with heavy curtains at night, the extension served a dual and happy purpose: parents’ bedroom by night and family room by day. A large playroom-cum-bedroom was next  partitioned with rails and curtains to make two sleeping nooks and a nonfiction department. Friday night customers became quite used to seeing small pajama-clad figures coming and going and to hearing shouted advice from the recesses.

Roy’s capacity for hard work, his willingness to build yet another set of shelves, his ingenuity and inventiveness knew no bounds. Despite the considerable demands of his own working day, on many a night we set out with loaded van to drive to another part of Auckland — or beyond — where an audience would be assembled for a talk on children’s reading. The ultimate luxury of a separate wing comprising another living room, a bathroom, and five bedrooms was achieved when the business was four years old. Three years later the decision was made to move the shop from the house. By this time we were servicing hundreds of schools with our Bookwagon, an eighteen-foot-long articulated caravan which Roy had designed and built.

Our present premises comprise five thousand square feet and provide all the space we need for functions and fun as well as for bookselling. With great satisfaction we established a playroom adjacent to the picture book department. We continue to supply coffee and biscuits for customers who have come far or are staying long; and chairs and tables for browsing add to everyone’s comfort. For two years we have held a week-long book fair in the August school holidays. Regular groups of students and school children come in during the day for lectures and lessons; and parents’ groups, librarians, and others are increasingly using our facilities for evening meetings. We now have a staff of seven — all caring, committed people whom I happily left to preserve the spirit and the reality of the business for three months last year, while I went to look at children’s bookselling and publishing in England.

My belief in the importance of children’s bookselling deepens with the years. When children are grown, they need to harbor memories of happiness — of those surging moments of happiness which belong to childhood alone. I believe that parents, teachers, and other adults can help to provide these memories, and that the joyful experience of books can be part of the raw material. But I believe also that children will not make contact with books unless adults in increasing numbers take action; and useful action must take heed of the child’s right to own as well as to borrow books. I am immodest enough to believe that children’s booksellers who care about children and books — in that order — have a major role to play.

From the April 1977 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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Comments

  1. Jennifer Arrow says:

    Thank you so much for posting this! Butler’s Babies Need Books and Five to Eight are far and away my favorite book guides for children, even though most of the suggestions are either quite out of print or were only ever available overseas in the first place. For one thing, that doesn’t matter anymore thanks to Internet book buying, and for another, her advice for each developmental level of reader/listener is spot on.

    For anyone interested in more from Dorothy, it’s worth it is completely worthwhile to obtain her two-volume autobiography from Penguin New Zealand.

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