By Andrew Frame, Man About Town
Dymocks Booksellers in Napier is gone, closing its doors for the last time on Saturday 29 January.
For me it’s a personal loss, as I’ve had a close association with the business for seven of the more than ten years it was in operation. I worked there for three years, starting when it was in lower Emerson Street, before moving to the old Gahagan’s Pharmacy building where it had been up until now. I was proud to work there. I loved the books and I worked with some very smart, interesting and funny people. I met my Beloved while I was working there. She came in looking for a book and left with the shop assistant. She ended up getting a job there too and outlasted me – 5 years service.
Retail may not be one of the most respected, highly paid or glamorous jobs, but I have to say there was not a single day while I was working at Dymocks that I woke up and thought: “Oh crap, I have to go to work today”.
I’m sadder about the shop closing down than Beloved is. She is looking forward to having a break away from work for a few months, while I’m lamenting not only the loss of income and easy access to discounted books, but a big part of our lives and what I always considered to be one of the best shops in Napier. It may sound simple, but one morning early in my time at Dymocks, I was setting up the specials table outside the store and thought “I work in Emerson Street, that’s pretty damn cool! I’m an ambassador to all the customers and visitors to Napier’s premiere retail precinct on just how good this city can be”.
Dymocks joins ‘street and surf’ clothing store 3Sixty in a growing list of long-established local, central city retailers closing down in the face of big overseas-owned chains (and at least one big, red, New Zealand-owned one), e-commerce, increased product and transport costs, customers with less disposable income, and central city property owners deludedly increasing rents (upwards of 20% in some of the ‘cheaper’ cases) in the rather obvious face of hard times.
The book trade provides a good example of how difficult the current situation can be:
- The cost of materials has increased. It now costs upwards of $60 (up from $40-$50 a few years ago) for a hardback novel as the price of ink, paper and cardboard increased. And books are one of the heaviest items to transport. Skyrocketing fuel prices have had a direct effect on the cost of stock deliveries.
- Big chains have the power to buy in bulk, reducing the individual price of products. They use tactics like ‘loss-leaders’ – purposely selling a product below cost to entice customers into their store to buy even more with their ‘savings’. The smaller retailers must match their prices, for fear of losing customers, which reduces their margins. When their rents rise markedly, they are increasingly being forced to move or close. What is becoming more common in Napier is that another big chain with the finances to cover the higher operating costs will move into the vacated shop, putting pressure on even more small businesses.
- “E-tailers” like Amazon, without the overheads retail shops incur, can offer cut-price products without the customer ever having to leave their home, chair, or bed. I never understood why Hallensteins in Emerson St for a time had their shop’s entire front window dedicated to advertising their online store. It was essentially saying “Don’t waste your time coming in to be served by our shop staff – just order online and when we make them redundant we’ll pass even more savings onto you!”
- Times are financially tough. New Zealand may have missed most of the fallout from the “World Financial Crisis” due to our isolation, but bits are catching up with us. Consumers have become more frugal with their money – spending less and saving more in case times get ‘really hard’.
- Despite times being hard, less money being spent and less customers in the streets (Emerson Street has been scarily quite at times during the day), some central city property owners and investors (who missed the property boom leading up to the worldwide bust) are desperate to grab one last fleck of gold. So they increase their tenants’ rents or leases by remarkably ignorant amounts. Twenty percent is a large increase at the best of times. At the worst – well, we’re seeing the results now with empty shops. Many owners seem to have no experience of retailing or knowledge of the current financial and regional situations (more investors are from outside of Hawke’s Bay and in some cases New Zealand).
- And don’t even talk to me about “E-readers” like “Kindle” or “Kobo”. They will never replace books for me. Books have soul and magic. They smell of paper and ink, they are big and tactile. I spend too much of my time staring at a screen for work and writing at home to do exactly the same for pleasure or relaxation. One day I’d like to own a house with its own little library, with entire walls of fully stocked bookshelves and cozy chesterfield chairs in the middle.
This situation is something you are only likely to discover if you go for a wander through town. You’re unlikely to hear or read about hard times or empty shops in the media. 3Sixty’s demise made one of the inner sections of the Hawke’s Bay Today, but Napier’s Inner City Marketing’s P.R. shows nothing but a cheery exterior in its newsletters and occasional item in the Courier or Napier Mail. The organization set up to promote and protect Napier CDB retailers, big and small, prefers to welcome the new stores, rather than acknowledge that the loss of the unique and old, faithful ones could be signs of a problem.
There has often been the demand (or threat) for Napier to have a mall. Like St Luke’s in Auckland or Queensgate in Lower Hutt. But we already have one in our paved Emerson Street precinct. It covers a similar floor-space and even has the added bonuses of being prettier (from the outside it doesn’t look like a giant aircraft hangar) and has free air conditioning and lighting care of Mother Nature. Unfortunately Emerson Street is losing so many of its locally-based shops and boutique-style stores to the cookie-cutter collection of chain stores so common to its megalithic cousins.
Perhaps we should have gone with plans to reserve an area for ‘big-box’ retailers and chain stores between Napier and Hastings, away from the eastern CBD leaving Emerson Street for the more unique, smaller, local stores. They could incorporate a large park or green-space with retail complex and call it “West Fields”.