Inside the Australian and New Zealand book industry

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Melbourne City of Lit meets Dunedin’s University Book Shop

In this series, run in partnership with the Melbourne City of Literature Office, we get to know some of the bookstores in the UNESCO Cities of Literature network. Meet Dunedin’s University Book Shop, one of the oldest and largest independent bookshops in New Zealand.

For the past 76 years, the University Book Shop has been a fixture of Dunedin’s literary community. ‘The bookshop began in 1945 and was started by the local Presbyterian Book Room, as other University Book Shops in New Zealand did in this post-war era,’ says Phillippa Duffy, general manager of University Book Shop, Otago. ‘It was aimed at the local student population particularly the number of returning soldiers whereby education was an important part of kick-starting the country and access to quality books, both textbooks and general reading, was part of this.’

Since 1959 the store has been located in a now heritage-listed former confectionary factory adjacent to the University of Otago campus. ‘The heritage listing is in part due to the manufacturing history of the building as well as the literary connections, and the longevity of the bookshop in the building,’ Duffy explains.

‘Dunedin’s beloved University Book Shop is one of New Zealand’s oldest and largest independent bookshops, catering for literary pursuits and arts in the city—a city that is proud to celebrate its UNESCO City of Literature status,’ says Nicky Page, director City of Literature at Dunedin City Council.

As a campus bookstore, naturally the University Book Shop stocks textbooks—however, this is only one aspect of what it does. It has a dedicated textbook shop on the campus, but at the main store, ‘We stock everything with particular interests in literary fiction and nonfiction, poetry, children’s books, architecture, gardening and design, travel, society and culture and a much-appreciated cooking section,’ says Duffy.

The shop’s specialty, however, is customer orders, which is particularly helpful for academics and those doing research. ‘We order in specific sometimes niche and sometimes obscure books for our customers’ needs and delight,’ Duffy explains. ‘It’s also lovely when parents or grandparents are wanting to track down a book that was important in their childhood to share with the next generation.’

Inspiring a love of books in children is a big part of what the University Book Shop is all about. ‘The Book Shop is a founding partner of the annual Ignition Children’s Book Festival,’ says Page. In collaboration with Friends of the Library they also help with Books For Babies, a program which provides every newborn child in Dunedin a free book. Then there’s Magic Book Chat, which is a book club specially for children. ‘It’s run like a “grown-up” book club where the children read the set book independently and come along for a really great ranging chat on what they thought of the books. Charlotte, a qualified primary school teacher, facilitates the discussion and they might take a key focus around character, plot, any social issues or experiences that crop up in the books … And of course, like any great book club, there are snacks!’

For the writers in community, the University Book Shop also hosts an emerging writer in residence each summer, supported by the local Robert Lord Writers Cottage Trust. ‘This type of collaboration is a wonderful way to give back to the next generation of new New Zealand writing talent,’ says Duffy.  

The role of the University Book Shop in the community is constantly changing and evolving—most recently, due to the closure of the North Dunedin post office, the store has stepped in to help with international and domestic sending. Asked what customers have said they like most about the store, Duffy responds: ‘How well-read the booksellers are and genuine in their recommendations. Also that it has such a traditional look and feel but stocks the best in contemporary writing.’ The affection the community has for them comes through in other ways too—they’ve fielded requests to host 21sts as well as to arrange a bookshop sleepover.

One of the best things about their long history, though, is seeing their community change and evolve alongside them. ‘It’s lovely to be part of a full-circle,’ says Duffy. ‘Where long-term or recent customers become parents or grandparents, aunts or uncles, and the bookshop becomes integral to their experience of a new baby’s life setting up the imaginative and creative habits and joy of books and reading that, with encouragement, will stay with that child for life.’



Category: Features