The massed percussionists of AKSamba opened proceedings shortly after 8pm, pouring down the stairways of the Auckland Girls’ Grammar School auditorium to the pounding, pulsating, throbbing beat of their drums.
From that moment on the audience of more than 700 experienced grandeur, comedy, pathos and candour — and cake, too: the bookshop’s massive birthday cake, which was shared out during the intermission, for all who wanted a piece of it.
As she welcomed celebration participants, owner and MC Carole Beu described the bookshop as “much bigger” than her. “It is much bigger than a bookshop,” she said: “it has become a community, and I thank you all for being a part of it.”
The AGGS Dorothy Winstone Centre just down the road from the Ponsonby Rd bookshop has become a familiar gathering place over the years, hosting sell-out events such as Carole’s evenings with Margaret Atwood and Fay Weldon, not to mention the last major birthday concert 10 years ago, when the shop was still at its Mt Eden premises.
This time Auckland-based writers Stephanie Johnson and Karlo Mila ascended the stage, joined by Fiona Farrell (Banks Peninsula), Patricia Grace and Kate De Goldi (both Wellington). Between readings, the audience was alternately enchanted, teased, revved up and chilled out by songs from mezzo-soprano Carmel Carroll, the women singers of GALS, and women’s music stalwarts Jess Hawk Oakenstar and Hilary King.
Speaker after speaker — starting with guest of honour Helen Clark, whose presence prompted a spontaneous and sustained standing ovation — referred to the passion Carole has for books, and her seemingly limitless energy.
“I’ve never met anyone quite like Carole,” stated Kate De Goldi: “she’s a dynamo.” And in a poem written for the bookshop and its founder, Stephanie Johnson said, “she sold us dreams to read in bed . . . Carole shifts book boxes all around the Earth.”
There was also the small matter of Carole’s persuasive powers. “I am in full gear,” explained Carmel Carroll, resplendent in an evening dress of Women’s Bookshop green, “because Carole wished it so.”
For her part, the owner, who has won awards for her promotion of books, was quick to credit the many who’ve helped her over the years. “My passion drives things,” she said, “but my goodness, I couldn’t do it on my own.”
Pic left - 20th birthday cake for the Women's Bookshop by Chris Free, featuring the Women's Bookshop logo. Photo by Andrea.
The ceremonial cutting of the cake, using a giant-sized purple labrys (a symbol in the form of a battle-axe), featured representatives of bookshop staff past and present, and of the scores of volunteers who have staffed stalls, stuffed newsletters, hoisted cartons and helped run events over the last 20 years.
That community spirit was also evident last night, with members of the bookshop bookclub on the evening’s team of helpers. And when a diminutive figure — Carole, again — began to push the podium from the back of the stage to the front, daughter Anneke and GALS member Margaret Robertson leapt from their seats, sprinting to assist.
Former Broadsheet editor Pat Rosier was acknowledged for persuading Carole to enter bookselling. Publishers were also among those she thanked, such as Random House New Zealand for providing copies of Fiona Farrell’s popular short story ‘Sure to Rise’ for every concert-goer. (Fiona’s reading of that story, with its mention of crinkle-cut beetroot and other Kiwi delicacies, resulted in some of the evening’s greatest laughs.) Publishing executives Karen Ferns (Random House) and Geoff Walker (Penguin), Helen Benton and Bob Ross (the former Tandem Press) — all of them in the audience — received particular recognition.
But the invited guests, appropriately, kept turning the focus around. Karlo Mila described the bookshop as “a really important space in the anatomy of New Zealand”. “What an amazing evening,” commented Fiona Farrell — a sentiment shared by Kate De Goldi, who admitted she’d “cried three times”. Kate remarked on “a kind of audience that I just think you don’t get in Wellington. I’m still trying to work out why.” And she took the opportunity to honour, in the front row, “our former Prime Minister Helen Clark, under whose guidance book culture was privileged in New Zealand in a way that it had never been before”.
Left -Former Associate Minister for the Arts Judith Tizard (left) and former Governor-General Dame Catherine Tizard at the Women's Bookshop Twentieth Birthday Celebration. Photo by Andrea.
It wouldn’t have been a bookshop event without what the marketers call product placement, all of it done — and taken — in good humour. “Carole’s given me the very first thing for my apartment in New York,” Helen Clark told the audience, flourishing a Women’s Bookshop mug. Attendees arrived at their auditorium seats to find each had a bookmark featuring “Carole’s personal selection of her top twenty novels”, most of them on sale in the foyer.
At the podium, the MC would from time to time treat the audience to a view of her backside as she delivered on a promise to “just dive down and get a book . . . This is good bookselling,” explained the former teacher, holding one up for all to see. “You show the customer the book.” And how else could such a celebration end (at 11.30pm) other than with an audience invitation to have copies signed by authors in the foyer?
(Claire Gummer, a former Women’s Bookshop staffer, now works in publishing.)