Tuesday, February 22, 2011


The following thoughtful letter to the editor by John Bentley appeared in the New Zealand Herald today. Bentley, a book trade veteran, and thorough gentleman, was first a bookseller and then for many years a highly rated publishers sales representative.

The possible demise of Whitcoulls leaves me deeply saddened and not a litlle angry.

Those whose careers in the book trade date back to the 1960s and 1970s almost invariably cut their teeth there.There was no better apprenticeship.
The experience taught us the mechanics of the book industry, but it also instilled a passion for books, and the supreme importance of the customer.

When I started at Whitcoulls in Queen St in 1975, the customer services department was the pivot around which the rest of the store revolved. No effort was spared to track down a title for any customer.

The rot set in with the company's acquisition by the Rank Group in the mid-1990s. Overnight the culture was changed from a customer service-based retail operation to one based on supermarket princilpes. The human capital of staff with immense experience, loyalty and knowledge was allowed to dissipate and become lost to the company.

Inevitably, Whitcoulls lost market share, from its apogee of earlier times of possibly up to 60% to a figure closer to 35%. It lost the passion, but, worse, it became arrogant in its dealings with publishers and other suppliers.

Bertie Whitcombe must be spinning in his grave.

John Bentley,

Thank you John, very well put.
Your comment about the company becoming arrogant really rang a bell with me. I was involved in book publishing in those days and shall never forget the arrogance of people like Stefan Preston, one of Hart's henchmen, perhaps the most arrogant man I ever had the misfortune to meet. He was right up there with Mudoon in my book. He and others like him destroyed in a few months the goodwill with their suppliers that had been built up over many decades.
Hart then sold to Watson who if anything inflicted even more damage!


Jacqui Dimes said...

I wholeheartedly agree with John and Bookman. The silence from the publishers who must be very nervous is deafening. I was at Whitcoulls when Brierley bought "the store' and despite the radical changes made then, at least bookpeople were employed to soften the blows.

Brian said...

Bookman I think you are too kind about Stefan Preston. Not only was he among the most arrogant people I ever met but he was also the most self-important know-all upstart I ever came across. I seem to recall he had a raft of US business qualifications which may have been part of the problem.
I think he may now be the CEO of Bendon?

Angela said...

I well remember you John visiting the Corner in the 1990s. There was no passion or interest in books then, and the executives brought in at that time tried implementing a sales course bought in the US which was more suited to a jewellery shop in downtown Kansas City. Its amazing they've lasted this long really - I know they treated the publishing industry with arrogance then as well.