If you a) love books and want to visit a shop which stocks a big range and has knowledgeable staff, or b) are interested in local NZ published books - where do you go in New Zealand? The short answer is that, with the exception of a handful of the Paper+ stores, you don't go to any of the major chains. In some of the larger cities (and a few of the smaller towns) there are good independents that fit this description, but in most places there's depressingly nowhere to go.
Whitcoulls has now announced that one person in Melbourne is going to make all buying decisions for all books stocked in all Whitcoulls, Angus & Robertson (the equivalent chain in Australia) and Borders stores in both countries - yes, you you heard right.
Is this the beginning of the end for these stores? No, just another, albeit major, step on the slippery slope to oblivion they stepped on back in the mid-1990s. Whitcoulls was for a long time a big name in the NZ book industry, not only the retail side but in printing and publishing. It is now just a chain of some 60 variety stores owned by an Australian private investment group, intent on positioning itself one notch above the $2 Shop and The Warehouse, with a smaller range of products.
At the beginning of the year in an article published in The Christchurch Press, Wellington historian and writer Gavin McLean stated his opinion that Whitcoulls is the world's second-worst bookselling chain, the worst being British chain W.H. Smith, a short-lived former owner of Whitcoulls. "If you walk into one of the flagship branches, like Lambton Quay in Wellington, what you encounter is container loads of remaindered rubbish imported by Whitcoulls, sitting in piles in prime retail space," Gavin said. "If you go into most intelligently-run independent bookstores, you find the new books greet you when you come in the door – normally new New Zealand books. But in Lambton Quay, you have to search to find New Zealand books." The New Zealand section was slightly easier to find at the Cashel Street store in central Christchurch, but close to impossible to locate in their four-level mega-store in Queen Street, Auckland, which adopts the same retail principle as Lambton Quay: tempt consumers with groaning tables of discounted garbage and hide the good stuff away. In fact to get a NZ book in the door at all it had to be very populist, said another publishing insider.
So just that situation continues, only worse than before - don't expect to see many NZ published books in these shops from now on.