A book-lover’s walk through Dunedin, where second-hand bookshops abound

Follow this wandering bibliophile as he takes you on a personal journey of search and discovery to second-hand bookshops around Ōtepoti Dunedin

Words: Extracted from The Book Collector: Reading and Living with Literature by Tony Eyre

Dunedin has its own second-hand book mega-store, Hard to Find Books in Dowling Street. It opened in 2013 and boasts the largest stock in the country. And no wonder, because its proprietor, Warwick Jordan, has a voracious appetite and reputation for buying up large collections, rather than cherry picking, which can be the habit of many dealers. When visiting Auckland, I often used to call in on Warwick’s Hard to Find bookshop in Onehunga with its original fruit-shop signwriting still on the front window. The bookshop closed in 2018 due to unaffordable rent hikes and re-emerged in the old Catholic convent on St Benedict’s Street.

The Dunedin bookstore occupies the first floor in what was originally Hallenstein’s New Zealand Clothing Factory which, back in the 1880s, employed around 300 mainly female workers.

It was soon after the closing of the Onehunga bookshop that I was book-browsing in the Dowling Street premises and was confronted by a huge shipping container on the street as I headed down the stairs. The container was filled to the gunwales with heavy boxes of books that had to be lugged up the steep flight of stairs one by one. A young female student, with finely toned biceps, led the charge with the first of many boxes balanced on her shoulder. It left me weak at the knees thinking of the massive stock transfer ahead. At the foot of those steep stairs is a red vinyl chairlift which runs by single rail to the top of the landing, and I’m tempted to give it a whiz, but a sign warns it’s only for the elderly or infirm. Maybe a ride on Hard to Find’s old chairlift is something to look forward to when failing eyesight forces me to become a collector of large print books.

More stories you might like:
Niels Meyer-Westfeld and Deborah Sweeney's design for life

In recent years, second-hand bookshops have become a source of my Christmas giving, although Dunedin’s magnificent University Book Shop is hard to resist for its rich pickings of newly published and still-in-print books.

For me, the giving of presents on Christmas Day is still a meaningful tradition that I hang on to. But I must confess, I tended to be one of those forlorn, mainly male, shoppers wandering around the CBD close to midnight on Christmas Eve, on the hunt for a retail store (usually with its security gates half rolled down) that might harbour that elusive unspecified gift needed to complete the harrowing ordeal of Christmas shopping. However, thanks to a Damascene moment, my life turned around when I abandoned the main street pandemonium of pre-Christmas shopping and instead made a pilgrimage to that quiet place of refuge – the sanctuary of a second-hand bookshop. When you step inside their doors, you’re taken into a different world where the literary voices from a wealth of traditions, cultures and genres lead the reader into new journeys of discovery and imagination.

One of my favourite second-hand bookshops was Scribes in North Dunedin where I felt instantly at home. There was the familiar greeting from its owner Richard Tubbs or staff member Bill Keane; the well-trodden paths to my preferred authors and genres, usually negotiated side-on because of the narrowness of the aisles; bookcases stacked near to the ceiling; the overflow of book stocks in columns on the floor; and the quietness . . . so conducive to the art of browsing, selecting, and flicking through the pages of a potential good read.

More stories you might like:
This couple's sustainable straw bale home took seven years to build

Relics of Dunedin’s bookselling history were familiar finds – books that bore the discrete labels of Newbold’s, Hyndman’s or Terry’s bookshops, old family firms fondly remembered.

One discovery of mine was an early book of poems bearing the label of James Horsburgh, a George Street bookseller whose business was acquired by Whitcombe & Tombs in 1890 when they established their first branch in Dunedin. And I must make mention of the aristocrat of the book world – the first edition. In Scribes, I would get the approving nod – like a high roller in a casino’s Aspinall Club – to enter the closed door to the dimly lit back room where shelves of first editions, resplendent in their dust jackets, competed for my attention.

So, each December, with the festive season in sight, I can spend a couple of hours in the stillness of a bookshop and head home with a bagful of pre-loved, recycled, second-hand books by a host of literary notables, each carefully chosen as a gift – Christmas shopping done and dusted. Each year I try to repeat this new-found ritual, grateful for not being one of the 60 per cent surveyed that dislike Christmas shopping or one of the majority that supposedly come home frazzled without a single purchase for their efforts.

But you need not despair. As J.K. Rowling once remarked, ‘One can never have enough socks. Another Christmas has come and gone, and I didn’t get a single pair. People will insist on giving me books.’

Words extracted from The Book Collector Reading and Living with Literature by Tony Eyre, Published by Mary Egan Publishing, 20 September 2023, RRP $45.00

More stories you might like:
Anthony Byrt and the conversation of art

Send this to a friend