News that Vic Books is closing down on March 31 has been met with an outpouring of grief, confusion and some existential grappling about what its absence means for Wellington’s very soul.
Well, double fuck. After 48 years, Vic Books Kelburn (situated on campus at Victoria University of Wellington) is shutting its doors at the end of March, at which time Wellington will be down two bookshop-shaped havens. (Vic Books Piptea closed in July 2022 following the protest at parliament which severely affected its operations.)
Vic Books is owned by the VUWSA Trust and not by the university itself (as is commonly assumed). In a statement issued to all VUW staff on January 24, Simon Johnson, Acting Chief Operating Officer, said: “The Kelburn closure follows the closure of the Vic Books store in Rutherford House on the University’s Pipitea campus at the end of July 2022. The reasons [for the Pipitea closure] given at the time were the impact of the Covid era on both the retail and hospitality sectors, with a loss of revenue from declining sales, and challenges in recruiting staff. Inflationary pressures are also causing challenges for all businesses.”
He also stated that the university would “continue to work with, and support, Vic Books through to the end of March and to work with Vic Books staff on details of the textbooks-only operation. We will also be considering how we can use the space to further enhance our campus and make an exciting addition for our students and staff.”
To clarify the existing relationship between Vic Books and the university, The Spinoff spoke with current general manager of Vic Books, Jessica Godfrey, who said: “We are very grateful to the university for the support they were able to give by way of rent relief.” When asked if there had been any conversation on whether the university could step in further to save the bookshop, Godfrey said, “The university does not own us, so I think the idea of them saving us becomes quite complex quite quickly when you start to think that through.”
The big questions clamouring through the halls of social media now are: What is a university without a bookshop? And what is Wellington without Vic Books? The closure of such an integral public-facing part of an institution that surely needs the support of the public seems like a Very Bad Sign. Of what is still unclear: we can point to Covid, to the disruptive and violent protest of 2022, to a famously tough financial model.
But is there something shadowy lurking beyond those things? A question of values at large? Do we really understand the value of our bookshops? Should there be more of an effort to save this one? Coming off the back of a closed Central Library, heated debate around the National Library’s rehoming of books and long-term issues with Wellington’s arts infrastructure (venue closures, lack of development and performance spaces), the closure of a university bookshop is hard to take.
For nearly half a century Vic Books has been what all great bookshops should be: a portal and a haven. It has been a bridge between the institution of the university and the outside world. Every day, members of the public would rub shoulders with the VUW campus and its goings on via the bookshop and that point of connection isn’t one that should be underestimated. For a capital city with a campus so embedded within its central infrastructure, it’s strange how quiet the university presence is. Vic Books offers a reliable portal for the public to engage with the place. It is a welcoming alcove in what can appear to be a fairly impenetrable tower of bureaucracy and academia.
Vic Books is a place where any member of the public can go to meet, to write, to have coffee with a teacher, with fellow students, with friends, with oneself; it is a place of study, reading, chat and industry. Most importantly, Vic Books is a place where anyone can be surrounded by print culture – our own books and our own writers, as well as those from around the world. Vic Books is a safe harbour for friendly and open public access and engagement with great works of imagination and argument that the university behind the bookshop is supposed to nurture. All of this mingling together, flanked by really bloody great coffee and essential 3pm chocolate bars. Beyond those things – the shop’s daily rhythms – there are the regular events: book launches, readings, festival events, and the beloved Saturday morning storytime for kids.
A bookshop and its activities creates community and that is an essential part of a city, an arts infrastructure, a university and a sector. In Aotearoa there is a close and nurtured symbiotic relationship between writers, publishers, readers and all of the interconnecting elements of the book world. Not only is a bookshop like Vic Books integral to the success of a book and the career of its writer, but it is integral to the community that helps make that book possible in the first place.
My personal relationship with Vic Books began in 2014 when my partner Andrew Laking and I were starting up a new lit festival called LitCrawl. We went to Juliet Blyth, the then manager of Vic Books, to ask if they might maybe be kind of interested in being our booksellers. Yes. Immediately. Vic Books gave us the confidence to go forth knowing we had a crucial arm of the sector alongside us. For what is a book festival without the presence of books? Local writers need to be able to sell their wares to new and vibrant readers and that’s what we were trying to generate: something new, something exciting and totally untested. Joining us was a risk but Vic Books took it, and they’ve been with us ever since, delivering complex on-site bookselling services at 10 festivals (including one outdoors at the Botanic Gardens which was a new level of logistical trickery). They have supported hundreds of local books and contributed to the ongoing generation of a unique, Aotearoa literary culture.
So, it was with a dismay echoed far and wide among Wellingtonians and book lovers at large that I read these words in the Vic Books statement on social media:
“Our heartfelt thanks to our loyal customers – those that come in every day, those who may have already shed a few tears (Mary – we love you), we shall miss you. Also, to everyone who has come through our doors – thank you for your support.
There are 10 weeks remaining and we’re determined to go out in style. So, please, come and visit and keep following us online as we stay in touch with news and updates.”
In just 10 weeks, Wellington will lose a vital part of its arts and literary community and VUW will lose its most consistent and friendly point of contact with the outside world.
We have gathered the thoughts and memories from those for whom Vic Books has been important, professionally and otherwise.
Jackie Lee Morrison, writer:
“The opportunity and thrill of getting to read my work publicly for the first time as part of the MA 2022 cohort at Vic Books is something I’ll always remember proudly. I’m deeply saddened — and honoured — to have been the last group of MA students to do so. Thank you Vic Books for being such a supporter of new writers for so many years — you’ll be missed.”
Harry Ricketts, writer and teacher:
“For over 25 years, I had coffee with students and colleagues at Vic Books in various locations. It’s like losing a friend.”
Catherine Robertson, writer and owner of Good Books:
“It’s a tragedy. I had a feeling that this could be a possibility given how hard Vic Books have been hit by Covid and the protests of 2022. It’s a huge loss to the bookselling community in Wellington and even further, what does this mean for a University? The impact of being surrounded by the physical manifestation of deep study and thought can’t be underestimated.”
Juliet Blyth, former manager of Vic Books, 2001 – 2020:
“I’m sad and proud; sad to say goodbye to her, proud of having played a part in her. Vic Books was something pretty special, it was an amazing community to be part of.”
Fergus Barrowman, publisher at Te Herenga Waka University Press:
“My favourite Vic Books memories are when I was a student and it was in Mount St, and I used to hang around browsing and reading the stock and chatting to Hilary Robson and David Long who worked there. Almost as good were the years before the pandemic, when as well as providing books, lunches and a meeting venue, downtown in Rutherford and in the main campus Hub, Vic Books was an enthusiastic supporter and host of local writing and publishing.”
Saera Chun, former Vic Books employee:
“Vic Books was my ‘third place’ throughout my six long years of architecture school. Working as a bookseller from 2014 to 2020, I’ve met lifelong friends, my partner (one of many cafe-bookshop couples!) and ended up with incredibly big piles of books and lots of cool stationery. It has always been there, holding my fond memories — surreal to think that Vic Books won’t be.”
Dan Slevin, Chief Executive, BooksellersNZ
“Like many in the New Zealand bookselling and literary communities, the Board, staff and membership of Booksellers New Zealand is devastated by the news that Vic Books is to close. They have been a fixture in the world of bookselling in Wellington (and New Zealand more widely) for decades and have always been a committed, enthusiastic and generous member of our association.
We are wary, however, of any attempt at drawing wider conclusions about the sector from this news. Every bookshop is different. Booksellers NZ continues to have a number of campus-based members.
For many years, Vic Books had a business model that leveraged two sites as well as their excellent hospitality offering. The closure of Pipitea last year due to the impact of the Parliament protests would have put that business model under immense strain, just as they were recovering from the Covid-induced campus shutdowns.
While we are not privy to any detail of how Vic Books have been trading over the last twelve months, we are disappointed that their landlords were not able to help them more as they rebuilt their business.”
Jessica Godfrey, current Vic Books general manager:
“My favourite parts of this job included: Watching young people evolve and grow – from their first textbook purchases to their daily oat milk lattes. I personally love seeing the energy of young people, what they wear, how they navigate campus and each other. Beginning of Trimester One is the most exciting time.
I love how egalitarian our café is – customers are all equals in a café – first year student or emeritus professor with tenure, no one holds more power. It might just seem like a coffee or sandwich but it’s something we all enjoy and we share in the same space no matter who we are or where we come from.
The IIML MA student readings that we host each year – magic. The future of New Zealand literature right there in our bookshop over two evenings – with wine. Absolute magic.
Colleagues and campus friends – I’ve made some wonderful friendships that will last beyond this job. And that’s because this place – with its great coffee and excellent books – attracts wonderful people.”
Chris Price, writer and teacher (IIML):
“Vic Books has been a stalwart supporter of Wellington writers, from the Verb Readers & Writers Festival to the Next Page readings by our MA students, which in recent years have been such fun thanks to Jess and her team. Feels like we’ve lost the place where all the people who care about books, writing and writers have a home on campus.”
Emily Writes, writer:
“I shed many tears in that cafe as my son listened to yet another kiwi-related book or another rendition of Mog. My friends hugged me as I wept, talking about how hard I was finding parenting. How I didn’t know how to meet the needs of my kids without sleeping. How I wasn’t the mother I wanted to be. We shared ideas, advice, solidarity…
We talked about everything in that little cafe as our kids yelled out books for Baz to read. We talked about our parents, our lovers, our friends, our neighbours…Nothing was off limits as we sipped our coffee. We would be mid-conversation and have to stop and chase a child, our words would hang in the air and were sometimes never caught – but it didn’t matter.
Our kids ran in circles around us. We felt like here we were welcome. We were trying to navigate the world as new parents so that mattered. That mattered so much. We met newer parents, gave support and advice, we chatted to strangers who became friends. It was a hub for parents as well as students, book lovers, anyone who liked donuts…”
Excerpted with permission from Emily’s Substack article, which you can read in full here.
Caoimhe McKeogh, writer and former Vic Books employee:
“For many staff and students, Vic Books was the heart of Kelburn campus from day one. It was a lovely place to be, for anyone who wanted to be surrounded by books and coffee; writers would sit on a comfortable chair for hours with their laptops or notebooks in front of them, in a place with more bustle than the library but less than the Hunter Lounge.
Vic Books was also the gateway between the university and the local community – neighbours came by for coffee and books and birthday cards, and brought their children in on Saturdays for storytime. I don’t think any other part of the university is so welcoming to non-students.
When I worked at Vic Books, staff got free coffee and discounts on books and cabinet food, but I still filtered about half my paycheck back into Vic Books; one-third spent on pear and pistachio pastries and the rest on novels. I’m sad that the campus will have no bookshop now, and nobody will lovingly display the books that current and past students and staff-members have written and illustrated and edited. This university is the home of the International Institute of Modern Letters, Te Herenga Waka University Press and Wai-te-ata Press, and it is packed with students who want to learn and feel and encounter art and broaden their understanding of the world; it’s a real shame that that’s not enough reason for a bookshop to stay open.”