New Zealand On Our Shelves

by Marcus Greville
A lot of choices are made in choosing those books that live on the shelves of bookshops. Many, if not most, of those choices are based on economic realities, but tied up in that equation are the wants and needs of the community that surrounds and supports a bookshop. Is it hard to separate stocked titles we value from raw economics? Are there books we re-order regardless of their sales? And if so, which ones?
This week The Read speaks to Stella Chrysostomou of VOLUME, and Niki Ward of Ekor Bookshop, two veteran booksellers who established their own stores in 2016, about the personal, professional and social decisions that go into choosing their NZ fiction and non-fiction.

VOLUME, Nelson


The first question asked of Stella and Niki was one that threatened the underlying point of this article – are always-keep-in-stock titles actually a thing? Or is it about an evolution of identity for the shop and the community it lives in?
Both Stella and Niki’s responses are qualified. Stella says that, Always-in-stock titles arise from or because of the identity or texture of a particular shop. VOLUME is newly evolved, and still evolving, and as we do so specific titles have more of a place on the shelf than others. The reasons why are many and various; from seminal works to personal favourites.' While Niki makes it clear that decisions are conditional, 'We support NZ writers that we believe in and love – that’s fundamental to our existence – but NZ is a diverse and changing culture, so we have to be prepared to change in response. Permanence of ideas is a dangerous commitment if you want to serve the community you cater to.'

Thomas Koed and Stella Chrysostomou, VOLUME
What motivates the choices for re-ordering NZ stock? What balance is struck between personal, political or social motivations? When asked Niki what made a book worthy, a decisive response was received: 'Worthy? Pfffft –no such thing! Books stay around because writers are #@*%ing talented and readers find beauty in their work. I want to stock as many magical and meaningful writers as I can afford to. Worthiness is a nice idea, but it’s really about what’s relevant for today and what will be loved tomorrow. Plus, always, Katherine Mansfield.' 
The judgemental ‘worthy’ was removed from the question when Stella was asked: 'As a book buyer… you’ve got an opinion and so does your shop. Often it’s not so much about what you choose but what you abandon or refuse straight out. Thomas and I buy together… we add in our own favourites and discoveries to create the stock-range that gives VOLUME its own identity, different from but shaped by our political preferences, personal favourites and social experiences. When it comes to selling you want to stand behind the titles you sell so it’s best to believe in them.'

Niki Ward, Manager, Ekor Bookshop
How does your region affect your stock?
Is it more important for your non-fiction or fiction? Niki and Stella both think region has a more decisive impact on non-fiction titles, 'particularly local histories' says Stella. Niki notes the difference between her years in Dunedin bookselling as versus her years in Wellington: 'Locality and region are an enormous influence – the bigger the town or city, the faster the demographics change, and with that change come different expectations of the books people want. I think it’s easy to be left behind by the dynamism of your customers, if you’re not paying attention. Respect and reflect the people and cultures around you and, hopefully, customers will support and respect your shop.' 
Ekor Bookshop exterior
Stella says, 'Most bookshops are keen to support their community, for both ethical and commercial reasons. As such you want to support local writers and publishers as well as stock local histories and regional stories.' Stella also acknowledges the influence of community change and economic realities: That’s not to say that just because it’s local it will have a place on your shelves. Each title still has to fit with your brand and earn its place. Earning its place could be in terms of sales, longtail usually, but also about adding to that texture – being necessary to a shop’s curated space or because it has that elusive quality of being "good".'
Okay, okay, but surely there are things you MUST have?
That all NZ bookshops HAVE to stock? Loosely, the answer is yes. You have to stock Eleanor Catton, Keri Hulme and Katherine Mansfield, because they’re amazing. You need ‘Tangata Whenua’, and probably Ranganui Walker and Michael King. And Niki thinks, because 'it’s basically in NZ’s DNA at this point', that everyone probably has the Edmonds Cookery Book in their shop. Stella said 'fiction titles are much more likely to go in and out of fashion and… few warrant a space as always-in-stock.' And Niki suggests that, 'by its nature, non-fiction can lose relevance fairly quickly' The overall answer seems to be that there are probably some things one needs to stock… for now.

Ekor interior
The strongest reasons both Niki and Stella gave for keeping a book in stock boiled down to two simple principles: one, respecting customer demand and, two, handselling. Stella spoke of ‘championing’ books strongly believed in, and Niki loves ‘stocking personal obsessions’, but each was careful not to offer absolute answers to the idea of ‘must have’ titles. The sentiment that came through from both Stella and Niki was that things and people change, so a bookshop must strongly maintain the ability to change with them, helping where it can. To commit to a title as a permanent ‘must-stock’ runs counter to being reflexive and considered – the only permanence is to the idea of adaptability and passion.