A little bookshop on High Street just scooped a massive prize. We caught up with Jo McColl to celebrate.
A trove of wonderful books and wonderful book people, Unity Books Auckland was overnight recognised on the world stage, winning the 2020 Bookstore of the Year Award. The London Book Fair at which the prize was to be announced might have been corona-cancelled, but who cares when you’ve just pocketed a global gong like this.
Unity Books (sponsors of The Spinoff’s books section) turned 31 years old last month, and Jo McColl has been there since the beginning. With a pair of other staff dispatched to London to collect the prize, McColl is currently in New York City. We gave her a call just after she’d crossed the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Spinoff: Incredible news, congratulations. It must be all a bit surreal, with you in New York and your colleagues in London at a kind of ghost event?
Jo McColl: It feels really odd. Things are closing down, like a domino effect, around us. But it’s absolutely fantastic. The Washington Post have asked for a quote, which is lovely. I think everyone wants a good news story right now. Everything’s pretty glum otherwise.
I could not be more delighted. I was hoping in my heart that this would happen, but this is just amazing. Brilliant. Brilliant. Absolutely amazing day.
What is it about Unity that is special? What do you think the judges saw in it?
I think part of it is the good news story – having just opened a children’s book shop, Little Unity, just right next door. That was an incredibly positive thing to do. The city has responded incredibly positively to that. Heart of the City have been right behind us.
You had to do a submission to enter this, and I think there were 29 entries this year. I think possibly the judges were looking for that happy story. If you look at our Facebook page, the reviews we get are overwhelming positive. It’s just the love of a good bookshop. A good bookshop in the heart of the city.
I’ve been in the trade now for 42 years – at Unity for 42 years! – and right now the New Zealand book space has books from all around the globe, in a way that I don’t know if many other countries do. Because it’s an open market we have access to books from the States and Britain. We’ve got books from every country, pretty much. When you go in there it’s like a world of books within four walls. And I think that’s a reflection of the Auckland community.
Forty-two years! Auckland Unity has only been around 31 of those – it was a kind of breakaway movement from Wellington by you and co-founder Nigel Cox? Tell us the origin story?
Nigel and I were managing the Wellington store together, and we both had reasons to move to Auckland, so suggested to Alan Preston [who founded Unity Books in 1967] that he needed to open a branch in Auckland, and he agreed – surprisingly, because it was in 1989 and the recession had just hit.
So we came up and opened Unity Auckland. There were the two of us and a third person, Angela Travers, at that stage. And that was it: a cast of three. And fast-forward 31 years, it’s a cast of 18. And Angela’s back with us, running the children’s bookshop, which is a lovely feat of symmetry.
One of the most impressive things to say for almost any bookshop is to have survived through the challenges of the likes of Amazon or Book Depository.
It’s amazing. When we opened there were 10 bookshops in our vicinity, within about two or three blocks of us. Now, apart from a little Whitcoulls, us and Jason [rare and second-hand books], they’ve all disappeared.
But we always had complete self-belief. Never doubted, for one moment. Never thought that we would fail. Because we just had something going with the customers, in a way that I knew didn’t exist in other shops.
And I knew that we provided a connection with the American literary market that no other shop was interested in doing or could be bothered to do at that stage. So, for example, when Picador launched its paperback range, I think, in 1992, we were the store that was asked to do the launch. It was a massive launch, a really exciting time. It the first time that Michael Ondaatje, Cormac McCarthy, Edmund White, all those people had been in paperback versions out from another imprint, in this wonderful Picador range. Those were the sort of things that gave us that edge of difference.
But I’ve always been so in love with Unity, having started shopping there myself when I was 14 or 15, having travelled through the city and discovered this alternative bookshop, with all these amazing things that no one else had. So all I wanted to do when I got to university was get a part-time job at Unity Books. And I’ve never gone away.
What will you be doing to celebrate?
Right now, I’m going in to see To Kill a Mockingbird. When I left I said to the staff: we’re going to win. We’re going to win so make sure you get lots of staff organised for Thursday night with lots of bubbles. So I can only guess what kind of hectic behaviour that young crowd will get up to while I’m gone.
I’ve just seen a photo. They’re already drinking champagne in the window of the bookshop.
Excellent. Nigel would be proud.
Last thing, given it’s a time of Covid-19. If someone’s self-isolating, what’s your recommendation, as owner of the best bookshop in the world, of the book they should take with them?
If they’re not afraid of a big fat novel, I would definitely say The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel, the third part in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy. It’s even more extraordinary than the other two. Just absolutely unbelievable.
And if they’re not into fiction, there’s a new Erik Larson. He wrote The Devil in the White City, which is a fantastic non-fiction read about a serial killer at the time of the Chicago Fair. But he’s got a brand new book, The Splendid and the Vile, about Churchill. He’s a brilliant author – that will be an amazing read.
But also! If you self-isolate, give us a call and we will courier out to you. We don’t intend to stop selling. We’ll get you your books, come hell or high water.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.