Even little men dream. Five foot three in my stockinged feet, five eight on Saturday evenings in my Chanel stilettos, I had a dream.
That I was able to live that dream, I owe to my Uncle Larry. When Uncle Larry popped his cork in the mid-80s and his mid-fifties after a long and prosperous career as a pioneer of massage in Waimate, I discovered I was the sole relation who had not disowned him. He left me a wad of Brierley shares and a mountain of used lingerie. I knew immediately what I had to do.
Retaining only the slinkiest of the lingerie for recreational purposes, I bulldozed the rest into a brown paper parcel the size of Fendalton and posted it to Fendalton where it won several architectural awards in which I took no interest – for I had other plans. I was going to buy a bookshop.
I had my eye on a dank little establishment off Manchester Street. It came with a somnolent labrador, a skeletal staff and the complete 1871 quarto edition of Browning’s poetical works in pink calfskin uncut. Thither on an unforgettable hot January afternoon in ’86 I flounced, pushed open the door and sank a four-inch sequinned stiletto into the snoozing labrador. It flicked open an eyelid.
The burly proprietor of dog and shop rose to protest but from my clutch bag I drew the Brierley wad, peeled off three non-debentured scrips and waved them under his nose. The intoxicating fragrance of wealth wafted up each of those heavy hair-lined nostrils and turned his head. With a deft tweak of the nose hair I twisted it back to face me, and talked turkey. His years in Constantinople had served him well, and within five minutes he had slipped out of the door and off to Manchester Street with his Brierleys waving in the breeze. The shop was mine – lock, stock, barrel, dog, uncut Browning and skeletal staff.
I wasted no time. The Canterbury Museum expressed delight at my offer of the skeletal staff so I lugged the three of them out to the Morris Oxford and rattled off down Worcester Boulevard in those pre-boulevard days when Worcester was merely saucy. A traffic officer hauled me over. He was a muscular man and there seemed little point in hauling back. He accused me of running a red light, but as I explained to him, he had mistaken me for my old Uncle Larry. The officer changed the charge to speeding. I was bound for the hospital, I told him, and indicated the skeletal staff nodding behind me. It was, I said, something of an emergency. He blanched agreeably and waved me on.
Back at the shop I tossed the lock, stock and a Collected Ursula Bethell into the barrel which I then rolled into the oblivion of the backyard. Mine would be no antiquarian bookshop. I intended to be at the cutting edge of contemporary literature, giving the book-buying public of New Zealand what it didn’t yet know it wanted.
With my unerring eye for a sales gimmick I left the stiletto in the Labrador – besides, the dog had taken to chewing at the sequins with every appearance of affection. We opened in May. Sporting an elaborate corsage of darling buds much shaken by the rough winds, I cut the ribbon that barred the doors of “The Stabbed Dog” and invited the hordes to flock.
Initially we specialised in self-improvement and we rapidly got better. How to make your first million without raising a finger sold solidly. Within two weeks every manicurist in town had a copy, Your route to Fendalton found favour with lost souls; but it wasn’t until we hit the rugby market that we really began to shovel the spondulicks.
Those old and elegant stalwarts, Game for a Ruck, An Illustrated History of Rucking, and Ruck me Tender soon had the tills ringing a merry tune which drew patrons from the pavement just to listen. And we found our first runaway bestseller in Olo Brown’s autobiography with its ground-breaking scratch’n’sniff chapter on liniments.
As we lounged in Le Bon Bolli one decadent lunchtime over a platter of hog’s trotters, the dog suggested that without rugby we’d be an illiterate nation. I scoffed of course but when he told me he had sold the Ursula Bethell that morning on the pretext that she’d been physiotherapist for the 1921 Invincibles, I had to eat my words. They sat uncomfortably with the trotters until lubricated with a goblet of the blushful Bledisloe, its oval bubbles winking at the brim.
The late 80s were heady days as we expanded exponentially, so exponentially indeed that we had to forgo Le Bon Bolli and snack on diet books. All the while we extended our repertoire. We followed up the smash hit Kiwi Men and Their Sheds with Kiwi Women and Their Garages, Kiwi Children and Their Orphanages and Kiwi Kiwis and Their Burrows. Copies of Men are Forwards; Women are Backs found their way onto every single woman’s bedside table and we had to employ an army of private dicks to fetch them back, which proved a popular move.
Eventually we divided the shop into five sections: rugby; self-improvement, romance, kiwiana; and books based on BBC television programmes. The rest, as you know, is history. Initially the history sold poorly but then the labrador came up with the idea of screwing chairlegs into the corners of James Belich’s Making Peoples and created single-pawed the market for coffee-table books.
It is not given to everyone to fulfil a dream. It was given to me. I am proud of what I did. Having established the formula for every major book retailer in the country, I sold “The Stabbed Dog” to a Brierley’s consortium in 1991 and went to live happily ever after in Waimate with the lingerie, the Browning and the labrador.
Joe Bennett is a newspaper columnist and English teacher who lives in Christchurch. His book Just Walking the Dogs, a collection of his columns, was published in October by Hazard Press.