“If Jane Arthur hadn’t tweeted about [Wellington bookshop] Marsden Books being for sale, it wouldn’t even have crossed my consciousness. Owning a bookshop has never been on the cards, but it then seemed to be exactly the right thing to do,” says Catherine of the opportunity. 

While they missed out on Marsden Books, Catherine realised her friend’s shop was coming free next to Prefab café on Jessie Street—the perfect space for Sunday morning brunch and book-shopping.

Catherine did her undergraduate degree in English Literature several decades ago. In 2015 she returned to the University to study her Master of Arts in Creative Writing at the IIML, the same year that Jane Arthur did the degree. Both are published writers.

“I had spent all of my 20s and most of my 30s working in the book industry, and as soon as I stopped, I just missed it,” says Jane, who is manager, as well as co-owner of Good Books. “We knew that people were reading a lot through lockdown, and also that people weren’t spending money on travel anymore.”

Catherine adds, “It truly is a unique form of retail. The level of positivity you receive when you open a bookshop is so different from any other type of retail business. It’s not just about the fact that books are an accessible treat in a dark world, but books—they aren’t entirely knowable from the outside, unlike clothes, or gifts.”

Jane finds bookselling special. “Knowing you are sharing this entire little world—you hope so much that that will be the world they need right now. All other retail feels like selling generic commodities”.

Good Books is the first bookshop in Aotearoa to gain the Living Wage NZ accreditation, something which they are both very proud of. “We want to show our staff that we value them and their skills highly, and this is the best way we knew we could do it,” says Jane.

The store is small and diverse, and their patrons have so far bought everything at about the same ratio Jane had ordered. “It was nerve-wracking doing the first order when we didn’t know who our customers were yet, so I just ordered a bit of everything on the principle that if I thought I could sell a book, I would buy some.

“A few people have commented that they have found things in here they haven’t found anywhere else, and that is exactly what we wanted. We have bought books we believe in.”

Jane’s first poetry collection Craven (VUP) won the 2020 Jessie Mackay Best First Book of Poetry Award, and Catherine’s books including What you wish for (Penguin Random House NZ), regularly sit atop the Nielsen New Zealand Bestsellers lists.

“Going into the Master’s as a published writer gave me space to concentrate on writing, and experiment with form in a way I wouldn’t have done on my own. It gave me a writing critique group, and of course IIML Fiction stream convenor Emily Perkins’ amazing knowledge,” says Catherine.

“I found it valuable to be forced to articulate constructively what works and doesn’t work, and how, and why, about other people’s writing. Honing that skill was the most useful thing in my own writing,” says Jane of the course, which allowed her time to write the manuscript that became Craven.

Jane’s advice to future students is, “Comparison is the thief of joy. This is true in so many different aspects of life, and whenever I see these amazing poets doing things I could never do, I realise they couldn’t write like me.”

Catherine says, “I’ve been self-employed since the age of 26, and where the path goes, it finds itself. As long as you are doing things that you think are valuable and worthwhile, don’t think it will be a linear part from A to Z. It’s just not.”

Good Books is also co-owned by Simon Hertnon, who is a published author, and leads writing courses in the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University.