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50 years of good reads

Hedley’s Books owners David and Jenny Hedley – recipients of the Aotearoa Book Industry Awards’ Lifetime Achievement Award for their years of service. PHOTO/ERIN KAVANAGH-HALL

After almost 50 years at the helm of the family business, there’s no greater satisfaction for David and Jenny Hedley than “seeing lives changed for the better” by the power of a good book.

David and Jenny, owners of Masterton’s Hedley’s Books, have been honoured for their decades of service to the book trade – receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2002 Aotearoa Book Industry Awards.

The awards, organised by Booksellers Aotearoa NZ and the Publishers Association of New Zealand, celebrate excellence within New Zealand’s literary industry, recognising the highest performing authors, publishers and retailers.

The Lifetime Achievement Award honours those who have made an “exceptional and long-term contribution to books and publishing in Aotearoa”.

To say the Hedley whanau has made a long-term commitment to selling books would be an understatement.

Jenny and David, with son Alex (left), at the awards ceremony.

Hedley’s Books was founded by David’s grandfather, Alex Hedley, in 1907: back when Masterton “still had dirt streets” and readers poured over the local paper by gas light.

David took over the bookstore from his father, William Hedley, in 1974, with wife Jenny joining him in the business in 1981.

In the half-century since the couple took the reins, there’s been some challenging times for the book industry: economic downturns, the rise of online retail and digital publishing, and competition from television streaming platforms, to name a few.

Throughout, Hedley’s has remained a staple of the community — beloved among Wairarapa bibliophiles for its warm atmosphere, collection of locally-published works, numerous book launches and ever-popular Yarns in Barns festival.

As Jenny put it: “Since Hedley’s opened, we’ve had two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Global Financial Crisis, Borders and Amazon, Netflix, and covid. And we’re still here, still selling books.

“It goes to show: People have a thousand different options for their entertainment, and they still want to curl up in a corner with their favourite book”.

David said the Lifetime Achievement Award was “a great honour” — though one they almost missed out on receiving in person.

“The awards were presented as part of the Booksellers Aotearoa Conference in Auckland – and we hadn’t planned on going,” he said.

“We got a call [from the organisers] asking why we hadn’t registered. They said, ‘we really think you should come this year’.

“That was a hint that something was afoot. We thought ‘well, we’d better pack our glad rags.’”

The biggest surprise came at the awards dinner – with the Hedleys’ accolade presented by son Alex [named for his entrepreneurial great-grandfather], a publisher for Harper Collins New Zealand.

“It was quite emotional, actually,” David said.

“Jenny and I have dedicated our lives to family and to selling books. So, it’s lovely to have that endorsement from our peers – who have acknowledged the commitment we’ve made to the people of Wairarapa.

“Literature plays a huge role in our lives. Reading transports us to different worlds. A good book can enhance a person’s life, or even change it for the better – and the people who bring the books to the public are an important part of that process.

“Plus, it’s an endorsement of our town and our region – we’re a well-read bunch in Wairarapa.”

Hedley’s Books began life in the early 20th century as a humble, yet well-patronised newsagent, stocking newspapers and magazines, and a small collection of books imported from overseas.

Book sales, David said, “built up over time” – with New Zealand’s publishing industry gaining traction after World War II.

One of the first Kiwi titles to hit the shelves was Barry Crump’s A Good Keen Man, published in 1960 – a top seller, despite some initial complaints about “colourful language”.

David Hedley and Masterton-based publisher Ian Grant – many of whose titles appear at Hedley’s Books. PHOTO/FILE

David’s recalled working in the shop alongside his father William – and has clear memories of his dad’s skill with his Smith Corona typewriter, still displayed on the shop floor.

“This was before computers and fax machines – so, to make a book order, you’d type it up and put it in the mail.

“Dad was a great typist – he could touch type pretty fast on his old machine. Even so, it was a much slower pace of life back then. There was no air freight, so you’d wait several months for books to arrive from England by sea.”

When David took over ownership 1970s, business was booming – and the store served as a social hub for a community of sharp-eyed readers.

“Television was still in its infancy and, of course, there was no internet. So, the printed word was where people got their information and inspiration, and how they connected to the rest of the world.

“Reading was, for many people, their main form of relaxation.”

Farming families made up the lion’s share of the clientele, selecting mostly adventure series and romantic fiction.

These days, fiction continues to fly off the shelves – though the Hedleys have noticed an uptake in non-fiction, especially on “the topical issues” of politics, science, and philosophy.

Jenny attributes this to a healthy suspicion of the digital landscape.

“[Australian comedian] Tim Minchin once said that truth and lies all look the same on the internet,” she said.

“People know they can’t always trust what they read online – so, if they want the correct information, they’d rather read a book.”

Also popular in recent years has been the self-improvement section ~ with books such as Dr Hinemoa Elder’s Aroha, a collection of advice for “living a harmonious life” from a te ao Maori perspective, proving a particular success.

“Originally, the publisher only printed about 3000 copies of her book – now they’ve been scambling to reprint it,” David said.

David and Kiwi author Renee Hollis.

“It reflects the times we’re living in – looking after our mental health has become a real priority.”

The Hedleys say there was some initial trepidation within the industry, coming after the rise of electronic reading services such as Kindle and Audible.

However, after all these years, it’s clear there’s nothing like a “real” book.

“We get a lot of younger people coming in, and they’re happy to be in an actual bookshop,” Jenny said.

“They love picking up a book and holding it, the smell of fresh paper, the feel as they turn the pages.

“Reading is a sensory experience. A screen can’t replace that.”

After a grand total of almost 90 years in the book trade between them, coming to work is still “invigorating” for David and Jenny.

“Every day, you’re surrounded by so many different ideas,” David said.

“Through each book, you get to know a different person – and their thoughts and their memories. Each new book is like making a new friend.

“At the moment, there are an estimated 200,000 book titles in New Zealand bookstores. It’s still incredible to me that the human brain can produce so many stories.

“To know we can enhance people’s lives by sharing those stories is a great feeling.”

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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