Obituary — Alan Preston

Alan Preston (1932-2004)

 

As I write this, in one week exactly it will be Alan’s birthday. On October 29 Alan would have celebrated 72 years. Thus I have been spared the annual brain-wracking for a suitable present. Alan, you see, was a man with few possessions and little desire to accumulate them. His lifestyle was spartan and uncomplicated and yet he was a thoroughly complex individual. Who could have predicted that the sportsman-schoolboy (later to become a New Zealand soccer rep and Plunket Shield cricketer for Wellington) whose father owned the garage in Kilbirnie, would bring into being, establish and nourish the truly wonderful independent Unity Books?

I envisage Alan in the 1950s, a handsome young man (I have it on good authority) playing sport at the highest level, in an intensely male world. He didn’t drink and was prone to deep thought – hardly appropriate behaviour for sporting blokes. At some point Alan had had enough. What it was that turned him off soccer he never told me, but he burnt his soccer boots – threw them in the incinerator, watched them go up in smoke and never played again. A strong statement from a young man who had previously loved the game.

Then, in 1960, Alan’s much loved younger brother Peter, also a brilliant sportsman was tragically killed after being struck by a cricket ball. This terrible loss was, I am sure, to be an important factor in the eventual creation of Unity Books, for Alan, from this time, began a period of intense soul-searching and joined the School of Philosophy. Eventually he left the school but his deep passion for philosophy, history, and man’s search for meaning remained.

In 1967 he made a radical move and opened a tiny bookstore, “four foot at its narrowest”, at the bottom of Willis Street in the back of the Empire Building lobby. With no street frontage and the tiniest advertising budget imaginable, Unity Books was born. In this space Alan sold the books he believed in – history, classics, philosophy, politics – serious books. There were no loss leaders, no Gary Larsens, no Wilbur Smiths, no cards or stationery, and so it came to pass that on Unity’s first day of business, Alan took the grand sum of $19.70.

But Alan was not deterred and due to his extraordinary determination (and I would add stubbornness) Unity survived and in 1972 moved to the site that all Unity followers remember so well – 42 Willis Street. Street frontage with a decent window is a fine thing for a bookstore and in this space Unity thrived. I vividly remember discovering this treasure trove in about 1974 when I was about 16.

It is difficult to explain how stunningly different and exciting Unity Books was back then. For a start the display tables were flat surfaces, not the usual upright stands, so that you could visually take in the shop while browsing – and, wow, there was a lot to take in! Books piled on tables, spine-out right round the walls, in stacks on the floor and most importantly, they were largely books never seen in New Zealand before. Alan did a huge trade with “book people” in San Francisco, so hippydom in all its facets ruled – beat poetry, organic gardening, yoga, Moosewood cookbooks, eastern religions, the coolest Jewish authors, feminism, sex manuals, cheap sci-fi by the armload, therapies of every kind, American music, and it was all thrilling and fabulous.

Alongside all this exotica were the New Zealand books. New Zealand writing was coming of age, and Alan was always hugely supportive. From local self-published poetry to the initial print-run of the bone people to 100 copies of To the Is-land (before the movie) – Alan had time and a place for every decent book that came his way. He also had time to talk, and talk he did! Anyone who frequented 42 Willis Street will remember the conversations – did anyone ever make a quick trip to Unity?

In 1986 the store moved to Perrett’s Corner, and with this expansion and now very big street frontage, Unity looked slick and new and gained a broader commercial appeal. Alan struggled with these changes. Unity was busy too, and the back-room philosophising that Alan had always delighted in was no longer easily accommodated. This was a difficult period for Alan – his creation was evolving into something he no longer felt in touch with. But despite difficulties Alan hung in there, and in 1989 Unity opened a branch in Auckland. Then in 1998 he moved the Wellington store to 57 Willis Street where it has just celebrated its 37th year.

Imagine Wellington without Unity Books. Imagine the New Zealand book trade without Unity Books. What Alan’s passion, vision and bloody-mindedness have resulted in is a literary institution that is an integral part of New Zealand culture and that, as Nigel Cox wrote in his eulogy for Alan, was “entirely governed by high ideals” and “promoted what was good in society”.

Alan’s life took a radical new turn three years ago. Mutual friends reintroduced him to his first-ever girlfriend Judy Littlejohn, formerly Judy O’Brien, and eventually a very nervous Alan Preston summoned up the courage to make a date. What followed – the extraordinary joy and love Alan found with Judy was a scenario straight out of the best love story. I have never known Alan so happy and carefree. With Judy in his life Alan seemed at long last complete.

“Unity” – oneness … it’s the perfect word isn’t it?

 

Jo McColl worked for 23 years with Unity Books and now owns Unity Auckland.

 

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