Categories

Archives

Bookstores, cities, and shared streets

For me, a new house or apartment doesn’t truly feel like home until I begin to fill it with books. Books serve as familiars and friends: re-reading an old favourite can bring me back to places, people, and feelings that I had filed away in my memory, while encountering a new book is like befriending an interesting stranger.

Books are also heavy, especially after you’ve filled a few shelves. So they are not suited for a transient lifestyle: they require a stable home (or a strong back).

Just as I associate books with home, I also associate bookstores with cities. I grew up in the low-density suburbs east of San Francisco, around the time when Amazon was undermining the retail model of big bookselling chains. To get to a really excellent bookshop, you had to go to a urban place.

Bookstores play a key role in my first memories of urban places. My dad and I would take periodic trips into Berkeley to get dinner and do a bit of shopping. We’d spend an evening browsing the big bookstores on Telegraph Avenue – the late, lamented Cody’s Books, and the four-storey Moe’s Books, which (for me at least) sets the standard for a great second-hand bookshop.

moes-books-2010-courtesy-moes-books

This was a window into a different world: strangely-drawn comic books filled with odd concepts (not superheroes!); translated versions of obscure Latin American novellists; the cast-offs from hundreds of postgraduate philosophy papers. And the place was different too: shops were open later (and catered to a more diverse range of glass vase enthusiasts); the streets were laid out on a grid; the buildings were set closer to each other. People were around in the evening.

This, too, felt like home, in a different way than the footpathless suburbs did.

Later on, after moving to a city, I discovered that books were a good fit with the two quintessential urban transport modes: walking and public transport. (Especially in the pre-smartphone age.) Having a book takes some of the pain out of an unexpected wait for a bus, and occasionally starts conversations once you’re on the bus. Reading while walking is a bit more challenging but can be done with practice – provided you stop at intersections.

walking-while-reading

Me, basically.

One of the small joys of my current job is that I work on O’Connell St, with two of Auckland’s best bookshops within thirty seconds of my office. Used bookseller Jason Books is next door on O’Connell St, while Unity Books is just down the way on High Street. I visit both on a regular basis. Sometimes I go in to look for a specific book, and find it; other times I leave with an unexpected purchase (or nothing at all).

It wouldn’t be that hard buy books online instead, and it would probably save me money. But I keep coming back because I value bookstores as places. It’s a much richer experience to browse for books laid out on shelves and tables than to search through an online catalogue. A good bookshop will draw your eye towards books that you otherwise wouldn’t have found – “hey, look over here!” They’re also places where you can run into people.

Unfortunately, the streets outside my office also present a major contrast in terms of place quality. The shared space on O’Connell St is a pleasure to walk on: even with a bit of car traffic and delivery vans parked up, it’s spacious and safe for people on foot. And, especially with summer coming on, it’s busy with people walking, talking, or sitting down for a coffee.

High Street, on the other hand, is an abysmal, congested mess. Most of the space on the street is given over to a small number of low-turnover parking spaces, while people on foot must clump together on narrow footpaths and jostle slowly past each other. As the vast majority of the people using the street are walking, this represents a major impediment to efficient transport: we are seemingly sacrificing the needs of the many on foot for a small number of people in cars. (And it makes it hard to read while walking on High Street, as I have to pay too much attention to people in close proximity!)

Due to the pedestrian congestion, I spend less time and money on High Street than I’d like to. Oddly, a lot of the businesses on High Street have apparently campaigned against a shared street, which seems like self-sabotage given the great numbers of people walking up and down the street and the tiny number of people driving or parking.

I would never, ever drive to buy books (or anything else) on High St, but I would walk out the front door and window-shop a lot more often if the environment was better for walking. A great bookshop deserves a great urban street, and vice versa. Get behind it.

35 comments to Bookstores, cities, and shared streets

  • Brian

    I used to buy lots of book from Unity but stopped when I learned they opposed removing parking from High Street to make it a nicer place.

    I have never ever driven along High Street.

    • Nick R

      I walk *across* high street three or four times a day, to go somewhere else, but I’d be lucky to walk along it more than once or twice a month on account of how hard it is to walk on. Haven’t driven on the thing for probably ten years.

      Makes you wonder if they are focussed on the right stuff, the people from elsewhere who maybe drive in a handful of times a year, or the ones that are already there who might walk past the shop ten times a week… if it wasnt such a dire place to walk.

    • nothinghereremindsmeofmetallica

      So where do you go to buy books now? Boycotting a shop because of its thoughts on Parking seems a tad harsh. What shop could possibly pass such scrutiny. Do you subject Amazon (also in disguise as Bookdepository and ABE) to the same litmus test?

      • Sailor Boy

        Boycotting a shop for ruining the city seems quite fair to me.

      • Adam W

        I also boycott them for the same reason – you sow what you reap.
        It’s a small thing I can do in protest but it appears others are also doing so as well.
        I wounder if they realise how unpopular their car focus is on their customers.
        p.s. I have at least 10 full size bookshelves at home so I can understand the sentiment of this post!

        • Tim Stevenson

          I am glad to see that I am not the only one who has been boycotting Unity books for their anti-pedestrian, pro- (unnecessary) car parking stance.

          I have been wondering if there is any way to find out which other stores have been ruining High Street for everybody? Apart from the obvious one in Mr Crane (Crane Brothers).

          There have been no adverse effects from having the one way lane between High Street and O’Connell Street closed while they work on Freyberg Place, maybe council could just keep it closed off as it is when the works are finished?

          • dr

            You can add Cafe Melba to the list

            I’ve not stepped foot in Unity Books since I discovered their stance – I bought all my books their previously.

      • mfwic

        Same place everyone else buys their books. The Book Depository.

        • nothinghereremindsmeofmetallica

          I was just wondering if you had any qualms about various attitudes and ‘moral’ stands held by Amazon. (Book depository being just another arm of Amazon of course). I often wonder why people hold local traders to certain high ethical standards but accept outrageous tax and employment standards from the Corporate players.
          .

    • Diarmaid Coffey

      I’m another boycotter of Unity for this (in Wellington)- it made me go from someone who browsed online and bought locally to the opposite. Their stance seemed all the more ironic given the style of books they stock.

      • Harrymc

        You can add me to the list: I haven’t set foot in the place since I discovered their antediluvian attitude to traffic.

      • Unity in Wellington is right on the bus stop. What can possibly be wrong with that? I often browse the sale bin while waiting for a bus.

      • I’m a bit confused Diarmaid. Are you saying you’re boycotting Unity because of their opposition to removing streetside carparking by … browsing in their store but not actually buying anything and instead going home to purchase online? Do you tell them why you’re “just browsing” when someone in the store asks if you need any help? Because they mayhave no idea.
        Actually the concept might work if it was done en masse ie a whole bunch of like-minded people went in there one Saturday morning, crammed out the store, and then bought nothing. An idea for 2017 perhaps?

        • Diarmaid Coffey

          Exactly- previously if I saw a book I was interested in I would have gone to Unity, and bought it there or ordered it through them. Now if I’m browsing there and see a book I will note it down and order it elsewhere.

          Bottom line is that ordering through Unity was slower and more expensive than their competitors online, and I personally was happy to pay that premium for what they bring- a vibrant downtown bookstore- until their stance on onstreet parking tipped me against them. Nothing really to make a big song and dance over, just happier myself spending my money elsewhere.

          I have a half-finished loyalty card if anyone want it!

    • Josh

      So ironic for a city book store. Surely more city folk who take public transport (time to read) would buy reading material rather than people operating steel boxes (full attention to road needed). I don’t really walk on high street anymore, unless its crossing it, just not really inviting and we now have much more pleasant areas to spend time shopping in the city.

      • Jeff T

        If these businesses are looking to cater for customers arriving by vehicle wouldn’t they serve their customers better by relocating to suburban areas that are easier for their customers to get to? Lease costs would be lower to.

        If, as one could suspect, they are in a pedestrian-intensive area because they want walk-up customers they are not serving potential customers well by insisting on a fairly crappy environment for them around their shops.

        • Yes this is the thing that I don’t get with the small but vocal anti-change retailers in High St. If they really characterise their businesses as private vehicle dependent what on earth are they doing in the most transit feed part of the entire city? I mean if that is their business model it surely would be much much more rational for them to be at Westgate or some other free-parking, auto-dependent suburban location? Could it be that they actually don’t understand their own customers and business to that degree? Well, the research in this area shows that retailers do consistently misunderstand this, assuming that more of their custom arrives by private vehicle than is actually the case. And this is likely to be so in High St as it is in K Rd, and the other areas studied, both here and overseas.

          Also we know that AKL is changing very fast right now, with Transit and Active quickly taking mode share from driving, so whatever the ratio now this trend is likely to continue and then surely High St as a pedestrian unfriendly place becomes a risk as a location for retail compared to more ped friendly areas like Britomart. And, indeed, Britomart is full of stores that used to be in High St…. perhaps we can already see the smarter operators over the anachronists…..

  • Warren S

    Peter – Books are a joy and I concur with your thoughts that they are not compatible with a transient life; hence my domicile in one place for 25 years.

    However, I also enjoy discovering bookshops in other cities of the world when travelling. Its always great to get a different slant on things.

  • Ari

    Thirst for knowledge has long since been replaced by thirst for easily digestible entertainment. Books are a natural casualty of this trend and are mostly obsolete, along with the stores that sell them.
    Not even wonderful shared spaces can save a doomed industry.

    • Sailor Boy

      A greater percentage of people (in the US at least) are currently reading a book than in the 1950’s. I’ll see if I can find you the video when I get home.

    • Ari

      There are plenty of contradicting studies out there, the question is if it is a physical book or a digital one. The decline in book sales and libraries is evidence enough. I love books. I own hundreds. I’m always reading, but never quite finishing one before I pick up another. I think i’m more commenting on the fact that the people seem to read less than ever and are less informed than ever about the world in general.

  • JimboJones

    Give up on high street guys, there are plenty of other manky streets around that would be happy to be made into shared spaces.

  • mfwic

    It would be interesting to know if sales revenue has increased on O’Connell St since the the changes. High Street has nasty little footpaths but they do force you to walk right in front of shop windows. I go into shops on High Street where I walk past shops on O’Connell.

  • Warren S

    O’Connell Street comprised almost exclusively professional offices with a small retail component creeping in only in the last two decades.
    High Street on the other hand has had a consistent retail component for 80 years, maybe more, but that is not a reason not to give the pedestrian a better deal/ambiance than he is getting now.

  • “Most of the space on the street is given over to a small number of low-turnover parking spaces”
    Crikey, what do you call ‘low turnover’? IIRC most of the street is P10 or loading zones, with half what’s left as metered spaces (P60 max, I think). Better parking enforcement might increase turnover, perhaps.
    Why don’t council cancel all metered spots (there’s a parking building at the end of the street people! hello?) and then have parking on one side of the street only with the other side a widened footpath? Parking can be P10 or Loading Zone only (to keep retailers happy, since they all insist they have customers who like to drive up, park outside, and grab their purchases [what, they bought over the phone before driving in?]).
    After a few years and retailers have seen that the sky hasn’t fallen in they can convert to a shared space like O’Connell.
    And then Lorne St next I suppose?

    • Sailor Boy

      “IIRC most of the street is P10 or loading zones, with half what’s left as metered spaces (P60 max, I think).”

      I don’t think that you do recall correctly. All of the metered spots in the CBD have no time limit.

      • Well, there’s a place to start – set limit to 30 or 60 mins max, pay or get pinged if you don’t. But I still prefer my first suggestion – remove them all and just allow P10/Loading Zones on one side only and widen the footpath on the other side.

        • Sailor Boy

          +1, I prefer your idea too.

          Removing time limits was a CBD wide policy and I don’t think we should change that due to the impact on legibility. Just keep increasing the price until they get to 85% occupancy or lower.

  • Jeff T

    It seems crazy to me that there are sections of High St with parking on both sides resulting in narrow footpaths. Maybe a campaign with council for just one side to have a wider footpath and the other to have parking, not necessarily a shared space? That shouldn’t be too objectionable to the retailers.

    The wider footpath should be on the side opposite Crane Bros but Murray shouldn’t object as this will still allow his customers to park outside his shop.

    Something needs to be done, it’s not much fun for pedestrians.

Leave a Reply