Last week Vic Books of Wellington announced that it would be closing its beloved downtown Pipitea store on July 31. His cafe has already been forced to close. Sarah Laing writes.
After my separation, I could no longer afford to be a freelance writer/illustrator, so I found a job in the public sector in Wellington. I joined the tribe of lanyard wearers, some strung with plain ribbons, some rainbow, some with Kia kaha te reo Maori emblazoned on theirs. On bad days, they felt like the tags were pulled in the cattle’s ears. I worked on the patio and occasionally saw Andrew Little striding down the street with his KeepCup and Adrian Orr sitting in the Colonial Cafe window. I never saw Jacinda Ardern while she was a few hundred yards from Parliament – she must have gone through the secret tunnel. I spent too much time in meetings talking about BAU and stakeholder engagement, big rocks and key messaging. I struggled with having to sit at my desk in a large open-plan office for seven and a half hours a day after years of relative freedom. I learned to interrupt boredom with white and flat excursions (the house plunger coffee tasted terrible) and walks through the rose gardens to eat my bánh mì before the sauce pierced the bag. On Wednesdays, I walked past the Cenotaph, admiring the line of pounamu buttons by Joe Sheehan that jutted out from the sidewalk to remind us that this was once a pā site, and crossed the road to the vegetable market and the stall of Shelly Bay bread.
Before I stock up on veggies, I might pop into Vic Books. It’s dangerous to walk into a bookstore – I can rarely visit one without buying something – but I thought to myself that I was just keeping up to date with new fiction, or that it was research, and that this It was my moral duty to support local book businesses. The bookstore was a beautiful, architecturally designed space – light and airy, with huge louvered windows that overlooked the law school (the largest wooden building in the southern hemisphere) and the bus depot, across the street. of the centenary. pōhutukawa trees that surround the hive. It had sleek light fixtures and midnight blue paint details. The counter front was a herringbone pattern, made from reclaimed wood from the shelves of Parsons Books and Music, another iconic Wellington boutique. It had closed before Pipitea Vic Books opened, and once in an interview, Igor Stravinsky called him “the most beautiful bookstore in the world”. In the north-facing windows was an open bookcase filled with desirable items—watering cans and witty mugs and bags—which I sometimes bought as gifts. The booksellers, Karen and Lisa, knew my name. In their eyes, I was still a writer. They got involved in the books I selected, telling me which ones they liked or commented on on the radio. Although I always ended up choosing something different, I took one that they recommended. Because once the threshold is crossed, there is never only one book.
For a while, it was enough to buy two books before you were entitled to a free coffee. The bookstore and cafe flowed into each other, with the children’s and cookbooks providing a natural transition. The ochre, black and white canvas I AM by Colin McCahon towered grandly above the cafe’s main seating area, putting other cafe arts to shame. I usually chose to sit by the window.
I first noticed the demonstration on February 8, while driving my daughter to a Scouting event. Campervans were parked along the yellow lines of Bowen Street, and my daughter shouted, “Go get your shot!” through his open window. I quickly rolled up the window. They were still there when I cycled to work the next day, their tents blistering the parliament green. In the following days, the city felt increasingly dangerous, chaotic. I hadn’t appreciated the silent order that my fellow strap-bearers kept. “You are sheep! Sheep! Take off your fucking masks,” a long-haired, barefoot man shouted at us as we lined up at the bus stop. “I just want canned cream,” shouted another woman, wobbling through the Lambton Quay supermarket in a long purple dress, unmasked and also barefoot. I clamped my N-95 around my nose. All around parliament, campers colonized, their cars parked illegally in Molesworth, Bowen, Bunny and Stout streets, stuffed with bedding, cold bins and PA systems. Their children were free. One evening, I passed them on my bike playing on the steps leading to the Beehive, writing messages in chalk on the concrete, the sun beaming from Jesus in their hair. It seemed almost bucolic. There was talk of Nazis among them and of campers emptying their buckets of excrement in the harbour. “I just want my city back,” my colleague said. “They are savages. I want them to go.
Vic Books has had to close temporarily – who wants to walk past blockages and hecklers to get to the store? Additionally, omicron levels increased. “If you feel uncomfortable coming to town, you can work from home,” my boss said. Some of us have. On February 25, the traffic light setting changed to red. “Please work from home if you can,” we were told. On March 2, protesters were expelled from the Parliament building, not before setting fire to the playground.
We continued to work from home. We were afraid of catching Covid. We had become comfortable in our Microsoft Teams camaraderie. We paired smart shirts with comfortable pants. We drank our own coffee. “It’s so great to be able to put your laundry in when it starts to rain,” we agreed. We were afraid of killing our city by negligence. It was up to us, the lanyard wearers. We were an ecosystem. Could they still make bánh mì if I didn’t buy one every week? Shops emptied, cafes closed. David Jones said he was not renewing his lease.
Went back down to the vegetable market in May. He still hadn’t come back. I felt furious at the protesters for stealing cheap purple carrots and feijoas from me, relegating me to overpriced supermarket vegetables. Where were all the students? I pitied them for having to attend their lectures online. I went to Vic Books. It was still the same calm and luminous oasis. Maybe a little too calm. I browsed the attractive stand of new books. They had it all – not enough to overwhelm, and stacked in a Mesoamerican pyramid formation. I chose How to Loiter in a Turf War by Coco Solid and The Candy House by Jennifer Egan.. Lisa was about to review the Egan on Radio Active – she hadn’t made it to the end but she hadn’t reunited yet and she wondered if she would. “Tell me what you think,” she said, stamping my loyalty card.
“I will,” I promised. “I am a big fan.” I went back to work with my paper bag full of books. I’ll try not to read them too quickly. Or maybe I’d read them quickly and cancel my Netflix, Disney+, and Neon subscriptions to free up funds. I felt good because I had supported a local business. He needed me. But I was not enough.
Vic Books will remain open on the Kelburn campus, and there is a huge sale at the Pipitea store until it closes.
Thanks to Juliet Blyth, former general manager of Vic Books, for the story of the Parsons bookshelves.