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Booktown founder turns a page

Featherston Booktown founder Lincoln Gould is selling his bookshop and retiring [for a third time] later this month. He spoke with FLYNN NICHOLLS about running Messines Books and his many other experiences in the book trade.


Lincoln Gould is finally retiring, at age 77.

The owner of Messines Books: Military History thought that, with business having dried up during the covid-19 pandemic, his retirement would result in the shop closing down, but a prospective buyer who wishes to keep the shop open has emerged in the past fortnight.

Gould said he and the prospective buyer are currently working through a sales and purchase agreement.

He said it is a handshake deal at this stage with a lot of detail yet to be finalised, but that he is “quite delighted”.

Gould became the founder and inaugural chair of the Featherston Booktown Trust in 2014.

His first retirement was from that role in 2018.

Before and during that time, Gould was chief executive of the trade group Booksellers New Zealand from 2009 until stepping down from that role in 2019 [his second retirement].

He said he got the inspiration for transforming Featherston into a Booktown while on Booksellers business in Melbourne.

“I heard these guys talking about this Booktown idea, specifically Clunes, which is a little town outside of Ballarat in Victoria.”

He said he had heard of the concept before in relation to the original Booktown, Hay-on-Wye, on the Wales-England border.

“The idea was taking a small village that’s a bit run-down, with its own historical context, close to a major urban centre, and reviving the local economy by making it a destination for bookshops,” Gould said.

“I thought, ‘Gee-whiz, Featherston is a bit like that: a bit run down, with historical interest from the military camp and the railways.’ It had potential.”

Featherston is now home to seven bookshops and plays host to an annual book festival that brings in thousands of visitors.

Gould said the Booktown has given Featherston an enhanced identity.

“It gets a lot of publicity nationwide, and a lot of people are coming to the town who would normally perhaps drive through,” he said.

On the day of this interview, it was rainy and cold; Gould said he hadn’t expected any customers to come in such horrible weather, but a couple from Dunedin had popped in earlier.

“People come from all over – I think the Booktown concept has done a lot to bring people to the town,” he said.

Gould opened Messines Books on Fox St in 2017 as a retirement hobby; the year before, he’d had a Messines stall at the first Booktown Festival.

“I had always thought of having a pub or a bookshop, so I could sit on the other side of the bar, telling long boring stories putting the world to rights,” he said.

The Featherston Camp, the largest military camp in New Zealand during the First World War, inspired the shop’s focus on military history.

The camp became operational after Gallipoli, and the first soldiers trained there went directly to the Western Front, where they fought a battle at the Flanders town of Messines, now called Messen, from which the shop got its name.

“It was just before Paschendale and the village was taken; that town still remembers Featherston,” Gould said.

“There’s apparently a map of New Zealand there with just one place marked on the map, and that’s Featherston.”

The battle was fought 105 years ago in 1917 and is commemorated in Featherston every June.

The two towns have been officially twinned since 1975.

“Thinking about that and the idea of having a military history bookshop, the obvious name to call it was Messines.”

Gould said many of the shop’s customers are military people based out of Upper Hutt or Trentham Camp who live in Featherston, but said there are also many customers who are searching for information about their veteran relatives.

“Those guys [veterans] usually don’t talk much about their experience in war, and when they die, their relatives realise there’s a bit of family history which they’re not aware of,” he said.

“They come here looking for books that might relate to whatever experience their forebears had.”

He said many people are interested in the Battle of Crete, but he also sells books going back to the Boer War and the New Zealand Wars as well.

“That’s been one of the really interesting things about running this bookshop: helping customers expand their family history.”

Gould said running the shop has been “a great deal of fun,” but it is time he gave it up to someone else.

“I’m 77 now, and I’ve been running this shop on my own; I find it difficult lifting a big box of books these days.”

Featherston Booktown operations manager Mary Biggs said Gould will always be the organisation’s inspiring founder.

“Through his vision and leadership, Lincoln has made a huge contribution to Featherston/Paetūmōkai being Aotearoa New Zealand’s proud and thriving Booktown,” Biggs said.

“Gosh, we will miss him and his wonderful shop! We are honoured that Lincoln will continue to be Featherston Booktown’s founding kaumātua [elder] and wish him every happiness for his retirement.”

Flynn Nicholls
Flynn Nicholls
Flynn Nicholls is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age who regularly writes about education. He is originally from Wellington and is interested in environmental issues and public transport.

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