In February of this year, Juliet Blyth, our General Manager of two decades left to take on the task of getting New Zealanders to read more. We sat down with her to reflect on her years at Vic Books, talk about how we’ve changed with the times, and what she’s up to now.
When did you start at Vic Books?
I started in mid-1999 as the Textbook Manager. I had been the branch manager at Bennetts Government Bookshop in Bowen House, this was pre-internet (!) and all of the corporate and government libraries and politicians bought their books from us.
How long had you been GM?
At the beginning of 2001 at the age of 28 I took over from Laura Kroetsch as GM. I definitely recall the weight of the responsibility at the time.
What was Vic Books like back then?
So different! The bookshop in the student union building where we were from 1992 was originally designed as a bank so we sort of made the bookshop fit into the space. It was long and narrow and the information desk was tucked under the stairs. 80% of our business was textbooks and we sold a lot of them, both to Vic students and to students of the Open Polytechnic.
We sold general books, gift cards and stationery as well but we were heavily reliant on textbooks. It was very social, and we were all pretty young, we had a yellow staff room at the top of the stairs where people from across the industry would meet. It was a very fun time. Because we were buried in the middle of the campus our customer base was staff and students, consequently Saturdays were not very busy, I think some office chair tennis may have been played (not by me).
What were the biggest challenges?
Relevance I guess, not long after I started digitisation of books started to become a big topic of conversation, we didn’t know what role we would be able to play in that or how it would affect our business. We put a lot of time and thought into what a bookshop of the future might look like.
Any memorable/noteworthy former colleagues?
So many characters have worked at Vic Books along the way and all have shaped the business in one way or another. Laura Kroetsch was a big influence on me, she showed me how to run an independent bookshop, she was smart and courageous. I’ll always be grateful to Cecilia Kumar, she was my first hire for our foray into the hospitality business when we opened our first espresso bar in the student union building. She really made that place sing.
How did you bring the cafe to life?
Two things happened concurrently - the opportunity to take part in the HUB redevelopment project was presented, and the changes we knew were coming to our core revenue stream as digital strategies became more prevalent. To remain sustainable we knew we had to decrease our reliance on textbook revenue.
Our decision to put in a café was based on increasing our foot traffic on a daily basis, we wanted customers everyday instead of twice a year at textbook time. Our first espresso bar opened in February 2010 serving up Peoples Coffee. That was a watershed moment for the business and it changed the nature of our relationships with our customers, slowly over a cup of coffee every day we deepened our relationships and found ourselves at the centre of a community which we have continued to grow and nurture.
Pipitea and Kelburn- What's the difference in vibe?
The customers are different!
Pipitea being on the edge of the CBD has a larger pool of customers who do not work or study at the university. Their expectations are different and they don’t buy as many Again Again cups. Our Kelburn site is a bit more like ‘Cheers’, because the campus and our customer base is primarily staff and students we have more regulars, our baristas know their names and what they like to order.
The take up of Again Again cups at Kelburn has been pretty phenomenal. The book buyers are different too, at Pipitea they seem to be a bit more plugged into reviews – both print and radio – and often come in for a specific book rather than a casual browse.
What’s your best memory from Vic Books?
The people – both our own team and our customers. I’m really proud that we have created an environment where people feel welcome and want to keep coming back.
Tell us about your new gig.
I am now the CEO of Read NZ Te Pou Muramura. We are a social enterprise that advocates for and promotes the benefits of reading. Our focus is ensuring those least likely to read do so - especially those that are not currently reading or are low volume readers, and ensuring the audience for literature encompasses the full diversity of New Zealanders.
I could not imagine a life where I did not read, reading has saved me many times. To lead an organisation which in some small way can ignite that spark for a lifelong love of reading is a pleasure and a privilege.
What are you reading atm? What do you like about it?
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, it was recommended by Reading Women, a twice-monthly podcast discussing books by or about women.
I like it because it’s about a piece of history I know nothing about, set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, it tells the unsung story of the brave women warriors who defended their countr. I’m only 50 pages in but I can tell this is going to be a goodie, strong and spare writing, gutsy central character.
Which literary character do you most identify with? Why?
Olive Kitteridge, she’s honest with herself, she accepts her failings and she (mostly) sees the good in others
Hardcover or paperback?
Black or white coffee?
Dairy or alt milk?