The magic of a second hand bookstore
Part of my soul was created in the Onehunga Hard To Find (But Worth The Effort) Second Hand Bookstore.
That was really its name, painted in faux-Victorian font on the glass window of a building that had once been a 19th century house but now fronted onto a shopping street. The phrase, like the old building itself, a maze of promises.
You got to the Hard to Find by taking Auckland’s northwest motorway on a Sunday then getting lost for half an hour. That’s how we always did it, my Mum and me. It was a ritual, a hugely enjoyable one. Though Onehunga is not small, we’d always congratulate ourselves on rediscovering it. Park the car on a side street and stroll down past the cake shop and the chemist and the bike racks and the hairdressers and the optometrist. Onehunga didn’t have a shopping mall then. It was owner-operated businesses all the way, hanging on as the twenty first century encroached.
The Hard to Find was a right ‘fuck you’ to progress. You duck inside and instantly the light’s different, an indoor world of battered lamps and shadows. A warped rimu wood staircase. Balconies that would never pass a fire inspection. Someone, usually an auburn-haired woman whose name I never knew, would be by the counter desk, talking to friends or sorting through a box of trade-ins. But none of that was the real story. We were here, finally, with the books, and they were everywhere.
Trails of memory and thought laid out in rows, in piles, in half-interrupted patterns. The smell of pages turned and fondled by human hands. Knick-knacks and posters and statue busts and postcards and mementoes. When the TV show Xena: Warrior Princess stopped filming in Auckland, someone bought the plywood Throne of Zeus at auction and plonked it in an alcove surrounded by romance novels.
You couldn’t digitally search the Hard to Find. You had to physically explore it. To this day I associate science fiction with an upstairs room full of sunlight and paperbacks and a single orange armchair. Roman history with a dodgy old stuffed owl.
That geography also meant there was no algorithm. Every expedition brought back a singular line of associations and treasure. Non-repeatable. I feel this is important, somehow. Amazon, for all its glories of access, can’t replicate a really good twisty second hand bookstore. It’s simply too logical, too focused on getting you to a result.
My Hard to Find life was between the ages of eight and twenty three. Sometimes once a week, sometimes once a year. Almost always with my Mum. The books I took away with me - three dollars for an old Larry Niven, seven ninety for Studs Turkel - still live on shelves around the house. But even though they represent many hours of blissful reading, it was the bookstore itself that really made the lasting impression.
There was a sense in that place that I was not pretending. That being an eager soul half-lost in a maze of possibilities was exactly, in those moments, who I was. There’s a beautiful truth in an old house full of fiction. And, of course, a lifetime’s memories with my Mum. Our secret special trips into a different world. Which is something everyone needs, if they can get it.
C J Halbard is the lead creator of Project Tempest, a growing story world of New Zealand folk horror and emotional climate change. Explore the town, listen to podcast conversations, and get the acclaimed novella 1862 free for a limited time by subscribing for updates.