A business with a past rich in history and a future rich in promise -
explored in an interview with Ross Humphries, its manager.
Smiths Bookshop has been in business in Christchurch for more than a
century, and as I enter the shop I feel as though I am stepping back in
time. The secondhand books are packed tightly into the shelves, and there
are no promotional gimmicks. There is always ready guidance to help the
customer find what is available, but the magic of the experience is the
exploration of the shelves, the browsing and the discoveries. Whatever
I'm looking for - history, philosphy, novels, poetry, a gardening guide, a
book on Polynesian culture, an atlas, a textbook for a course, special New
Zealand books or light reading to pass the time on a long flight - this is
the place to explore.
One boy entering the shop said in awed tones, "This is like the shop in
"The Never Ending Story". It is a unique blend of the past with its old
books, and present day culture with modern books, a catalogue on computer,
and a site on the World Wide Web.
Changes over the century
Smiths Bookshop has not always filled this role in its hundred years. It
was first opened in 1894 at 113 Manchester Street and sold only popular
fiction and stationery. The name was given by one owner, Mr Smith, and has
been retained. It moved to 133 Manchester Street, its present site, in the
late nineteen forties, but occupied only the first floor. It was only when
Norman Oberg took over the business in 1967 that it gradually expanded,
selling many types of serious books and filling three floors with shelves
from floor to ceiling and packed to capacity.
Norman Oberg's vision
Norman did not begin his
career with the aim of bookselling. He was an
entrepreneur engaged in all sorts of schemes. He would rent land adjacent
to a rugby ground, build a temporary stand and sell tickets for a big
match. He worked as a night porter in hotels, which no doubt gave him time to
read. Before buying into the book business he had been building up stocks
of books at home and issued a catalogue.
He was a warm and impulsive person, who felt that he had found his dream
vocation when he bought Smiths Bookshop. His dream was that he should be
able to supply educational books to ordinary citizens at reasonable prices.
Once into the shop he built up the stocks of books on all aspects of New
Zealand, on literature, history, philosophy and science....
He was very sympathetic to students who were managing on a shoestring
budget, so he began to stock secondhand text books.
In 1975 he put out a catalogue of the shop's New Zealand books, listing
over five thousand titles, and including one thousand titles of poetry.
The customers poured into the shop and regarded Norman as their friend who
shared their love of books. Many of the present customers still talk about
their pleasure in coming into the shop to talk to Norman and about the
books he found for them. Then as now the shop was a Mecca for people in
their lunch breaks.
Norman married Rangi , a Cook Islander, and the shop has long been a
drop-in centre for Cook Islanders. This is of course one reason why the
shop specialises in books on Polynesian culture.
Ross Humphries married Stephanie Oberg, Norman and Rangi's daughter, and
had been working in the shop only eighteen months when Norman died in
August 1984 and Ross took over the management of the family business.
Where do the books come from?
There is a steady stream of people
bringing in boxes of books - people
moving house or leaving the country, estate lots.... On Mondays and
Thursdays Ross visits people's houses if they want the books to be selected
and transported from there. He also attends some book auctions. The
business is so well-known now in Christchurch that the supply of books
brought in keeps him very busy, without his going to seek them at fairs or
As people bring in the books the cartons are placed on the floor in front
of the counter until Ross can deal with them. He was inclined to view this
as a sign of disorder, but he has learnt that a clean-up session which gets
them out of sight is not appreciated by his regular customers. As soon as
they come in they head straight for the unsorted books to be first to find
the gem in the treasure box, and express real disappointment if there is no
Ross himself found treasure in an old trunk in a virtually abandoned house.
Among a mass of rubbish he found a "Handbook for New Zealand" by Edward
Jerningham Wakefield, published in 1848, describing among other things the
temperate New Zealand climate and the cheap source of Maori labour.
Customers' particular interests
What most customers want of Smiths Bookshop is specialty books. They are
not just mass consumers, but those who have honed an interest and find that
the material they want is unavailable or out of print. They are fossicking
for books to satisfy a well defined need.
Poetry books are much sought after. Books of the classical poets sell
quickly and Robert Burns
is a special favourite of Smiths' customers.
Poetry right up to the Beat poets is very popular.
In purchasing books Ross is looking to satisfy this market. There is an
element of risk, of luck, in choosing what to purchase. There will be a
customer for a book on an obscure subject, but it may take a long time for
that customer to arrive.
Ross has just found a poetry book with
the Janet Frame poem the customer was
Ross recalls hesitating over the purchase of a set of books in German on
the Prussian Salt Mines - the machinery, the specifications, the mining
techniques - all in great detail. He decided to buy them though he doubted
that there would be a buyer for a long time, if ever. These books were
sold to a delighted buyer who had found the treasure he was seeking just
six months after Ross bought them.
On occasion a customer's search for special books has proved all too
absorbing. Twice at closing time Ross has turned out the lights and called
loudly around the shop to ensure that any customer reading noticed that the
lights had gone out, only to be rung by the police later to return and
unlock the door to let a customer out!
Is Ross a collector of books?
He follows the advice of Norman Oberg - "If you once start collecting the
business won't succeed." So far Ross has resisted the temptation to
collect, but is is difficult for a dedicated lover of books to part with
Nationwide interest in the New Zealand books
Smiths' special interest in New Zealand books is now well known and
specialists in New Zealand topics make regular calls to see what fresh
stock is available.
Books on districts in New Zealand are in high demand as people moving into
a new locality often want to research its history. Genealogists are
regularly delving into books on early New Zealand on the chance of finding
out more about their ancestors. For these people the early Cyclopaedias of
New Zealand are often a useful source.
While I was interviewing Ross in the New Zealand room a customer came in.
Ross knew immediately the section which attracted him - Sailing -
and was able to tell him of a recent acquisition - "Heavy Weather Sailing"
by K. Adlard Coles - essential reading for offshore sailing. The delighted
customer, who had been searching for this book for the library for the boat
he was building, bought the book and went away smiling and remarking that
it was not a book for timid sailors on their first offshore voyage.
Grammar books are in great demand, often bought by grandparents who feel
that their grandchildren are missing out on an important part of education
when they are not taught grammar. Old copies of Nesfield's grammar book
are snapped up. A recent customer wanted to improve his writing skills
and was delighted to buy a copy of the New Zealand Style Book, put out by
the Government Printer. Dictionaries and reference books of all kinds sell
The shop also stocks maps of historical interest and at present has a
Bernard engraving of Cook's first map of New Zealand, with the labelling in
French, published in 1771.
Norman sold a range of paintings, handling works by many of New Zealand's
great artists - Hoyte, Van Der Velden, Worsley, Gully, Barraud.... Now
the business specialises in two types only:
- Japanese wood block prints - ukiyo-e - pictures of a fleeting,
floating world, showing the everyday events of life, people washing,
looking after a baby, going to the theatre, as well as the beautiful women
of the day depicted in the most elegant clothes and accessories of the
period. (Reference books about this style of painting are also
- European engravings on wood, steel and copper - in particular New
Zealand topics, such as early Maori life, famous sites like the Pink and
White Terraces, and sporting scenes of angling or hunting stags.
Where does Ross see the business moving to in the future?
The special character preserved
'The special character of the business must be preserved,' he says, 'with
the tradition of service and of supplying books at reasonable prices to
customers reading in their chosen fields.'
Textbooks will still be stocked, in spite of the difficulty of keeping up
with the changing titles and editions used in tertiary education.
The emphasis on Polynesian culture will continue. Stephanie, Ross's wife,
is completing an Honours degree in Art History, specialising in Polynesian
art and studying the Cook Island art of quilt making. Some would regard
the work of groups of women gathering to make quilts as just a craft and a
socially bonding activity. Stephanie sees it as an art form. Her in-depth
study of Polynesian art will ensure that the shop's section of Polynesian
art will be well looked after.
Expansion to 21 The Worcester Boulevard
A new branch is being opened in September opposite the Arts Centre in
premises shared with the Antique Print Gallery, to be open seven days a
week and display collectible books.
Expansion of the client base through the Internet
Ross sees the need for this business offering a unique service to be widely
publicised and hopes to network with booklovers around the world through
Smiths Bookshop, an enclave of old time, a living part of an old era,
will now be a Mecca for those from afar through the Internet.