Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

05 February 2010

Open 7 Days 1. Cover & Introduction

I wrote and illustrated ‘Open 7 Days’. It was published in 1991. It’s a series of freeze-frames of some historic New Zealand general and convenience stores as they were preserved in the last decade of the 20th century. Bit by bit, on this blog, I re-publish some of the entries from that book.
I was very nearly too late with this book. I wanted to preserve, as at late 1990, a selection of typical New Zealand general stores, freeze-framed like insects in amber. I had it in mind that there would still be left enough of those grand emporia, remnants of lusty colonial beginnings, to comprise an informally historical monograph.

I found instead the last stages of the devastation of rural and provincial society that was brought about by the free market policies of recent government, the ‘Crash of 87′ and three years of consequent tremors.

To be fair, these recent events were only the final blows. The real decline had begun many years before when the long comfort of an assured British market for our primary production gradually disintegrated.
With my wife, I visited practically all of the stores in this book during October and November 1990. I wanted to gather them all up in as short a space of time as possible; almost as if I had taken a snapshot on one given day. This is important because they are in a constant state of change and may not now be as they were when I called. Some were in the middle of repainting, some had relatively new owners and some were up for sale.

The criteria for selection were varied and unscientific. I wanted to have a fair geographical spread, and for a store to be chosen it had to have all or some of these attributes:
• ‘Character’ and attractiveness to my eye as a watercolour illustrator.
• Some historical significance.
• A wide range of goods.
• If possible, to be open seven days (some were not).
• To play a part in the affairs of its community.

It was, I thought, more likely that I would find my stores in rural towns than in cities. Historically, cities were large enough to allow the development of retailers such as drapers, clothiers, milliners, grocers, footwear stores, hardware merchants and other specialists; country towns, with smaller populations, fostered generalists, selling everything from hatpins to cooking ranges, loose biscuits to sheep pellets. But I found that there is little difference now between town and country. Everywhere in New Zealand, from the suburbs of Auckland to the marginal townships of Westland, there are the ubiquitous seven-day dairies and ’superettes’; all, to a greater or lesser degree, serving their neighbours with the same will and doggedness as the large general stores of yesterday.
Their customers probably have less loyalty. Widespread ownership of reliable transport, coupled with excellent roads, has encouraged rural families to make weekly, or even monthly, bulk-buying trips to urban and suburban supermarkets and shopping malls, where choice is wider and the prices cheaper. The remains of derelict Te Pohue Store, which lies to one side of State Highway 5 between Taupo and Hawke’s Bay, prove the point. I asked the local publican where the residents of the township now buy their groceries, and he told me they drive to the supermarket in Napier – forty-seven kilometres away.

Individualism, one of the most endearing of New Zealanders’ qualities, was once outstanding in the local storekeeper. Today they are still ready with an opinion about everything from social welfare to perestroika, but most, despite retaining proprietorship, have given in to the benefits of the collective power of central buying, financial aid and advertising provided by groups such as Four Square and A1. Total capitulation results in a repaint of the store’s exterior to comply with the lettering styles and colours of the corporate design manual; thus, with a sense of having been there many times before, I found, so often on my search, old stones and plankings resplendent in Four Square yellow, green and orange. Neat, bright, but conformist and lacking variety.

Less ashamedly and greatly more aggressively, the Coca-Cola people have seduced a number of retailers into going red and white from doorstep to ventilator, cunningly camouflaging numerous little histories and, no doubt, sending many a long-dead, striped-aproned storekeeper spinning six feet deep in the local cemetery!

Colour is an enlivening feature of almost all general stores, and it’s largely provided by merchandising signs and posters. Indeed, a store without posters is as dull as a magazine without advertisements. In late 1990 the advertising signs most widespread were Tip Top’s ‘Realicecreamier’ and Coca-Cola. The cigarette companies’ sales reps were indulging in a flurry of activity pending the government’s ‘lion-tamer’s whip’ bannng of tobacco advertising. The last few brands of cigarettes to be displayed will be Rothmans King Size, Benson and Hedges, Pall Mall, Winfield, John Brandon, Peter Jackson and Pacific 30s; and while I’m sure other products’ posters (like those grotesque Teenage Ninj’a Turtles) will maintain the kaleidoscopic gaiety of retail shop windows, they’ll never quite be the same again.
We covered the country in detail, and there were many wild goose chases. The longest was when a storekeeper in Taranaki told me of an old store at Tokaanu and we made a long, gruelling cross-country trip on Route 40 through Taumarunui only to find nothing remotely resembling a general store. It had died, as so many have, in the four or five years since that New Plymouth storekeeper had last visited. In the course of that trip we passed through Ohura and drove reflectively along a wide, dual main street where more buildings were closed down than were open. You could almost hear the chuckle of the woodworms as they chewed their way through two old stores, a butcher’s shop and a deserted bank, whose imposing façade would once have assured the townsfolk that they and their money would be safe for a thousand years.
There were other disappointments, such as two magnificent deserted stores at Waipiro Bay, on East Cape, one of which was so recently closed that its paintwork was fresh; Donovan’s Store at Okarito, where, although the shop was closed down, we had the honour of passing the time of day with Booker Award winner Keri Hulme; and the old Matakanui Store in Central Otago, squarely built of mud bricks, now in course of restoration, but only a memory as a general store.

The most original of all the operational stores was Langfords at Bainham. I heaved a sigh of relief when, sixteen kilometres south of Collingwood, along a cul-de-sac that ends at the Heaphy Track, I found that this diversion was certainly no wild-goose chase! Langfords is the important pivot upon which ‘Open 7 Days’ turns from present to past.

All in all, I doubt if I missed too much, but I like to think that somewhere in some remote town there still flourishes an old general store staffed by earnest professionals with old fashioned values, treading ancient, creaking boards that whisper memories of miners and graziers. There in the cool, deep shadows the boxed shelves will offer patent medicines, preserves, shaving mugs and badger brushes. The match-lined walls will carry baked enamel advertisements for Bensdorp Cocoa, Radium polishes, Bycroft’s biscuits, Reckitt’s ‘blue’ and ‘Creamota Cream o’ the Oat - The National Breakfast’; and behind a wide counter, solid as a cathedral altar, fringed by bags of seed potatoes and biscuit tins, the storekeeper win smile, push up his sleeves and relish the idea of giving a little personal service.

Fifty-six stores were considered for Open 7 Days. I am indebted to all of their proprietors and managers, particularly those of the thirty-seven included in the book. The text descriptions about each store have been compiled from information they each sent to me. It was all of high quality, and I was pleased to hear that many of them thoroughly enjoyed researching the histories of their stores and localities.

In addition, I thank my wife, Pat, for her considerable help; and Random Century, mainly David Ling, for publishing such an unusual subject.

Don Donovan Albany, 1991

© DON DONOVAN (2012)

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By Don Donovan