50 years of good reading


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 is no greater satisfaction for David and Jenny Hedley than “to see life change for the better” through the power of a good book.

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

Organized by Booksellers Aotearoa NZ and the Publishers Association of New Zealand, the awards recognize excellence in the New Zealand literary industry and recognize the top performing authors, publishers and retailers.

The Lifetime Achievement Award honors those who have made “extraordinary and lasting contributions to books and publications in Aotearoa.”

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

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

Hedley’s Books was founded by David’s grandfather, Alex Hedley, in 1907, back when Masterton “still had dirt roads” and gaslight readers flocked to the local newspaper.

David took over the bookshop from his father, William Hedley, in 1974 and in 1981 his wife Jenny joined the business.

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

Throughout that time, Hedley’s has remained a community staple – popular with Wairarapa bibliophiles for its warm atmosphere, collection of locally published works, numerous book launches and the 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 and we’re still selling books.

“It turns out people have a thousand different ways of entertaining themselves, and they still want to curl up in a corner with their favorite book.”

David said the Lifetime Achievement Award was “a great honor” — although they almost missed it in person.

“The awards were presented at the Booksellers Aotearoa Conference in Auckland – and we hadn’t planned to go there,” he said.

“We got a call [from the organisers] ask why we didn’t register. They said, “We really think you should come this year.”

“It was an indication that something was going on. We thought, ‘okay, we better pack our merry rags.’”

The biggest surprise came at the awards dinner – with son Alex recognizing the Hedleys [named for his entrepreneurial great-grandfather]a publisher of HarperCollins New Zealand.

“It was actually pretty emotional,” David said.

“Jenny and I have dedicated our lives to family and selling books. So it’s nice to receive this endorsement from our colleagues – who recognize the commitment we have made to the people of Wairarapa.

“Literature plays a big role in our lives. Reading transports us to other worlds. A good book can enrich someone’s life or even change it for the better – and the people who bring the books to the public are an important part of this process.

“It’s also a validation of our city and our region — we’re a well-read bunch in Wairarapa.”

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

Book sales, according to David, “built up over time” – with the New Zealand publishing industry gaining momentum after the Second World War.

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

David Hedley and Masterton-based publisher Ian Grant – many of their titles are published by Hedley’s Books. PHOTO/FILE

David remembers working in the shop alongside his father William – and has clear memories of his father’s skills with his Smith Corona typewriter, which is still on display in the shop.

“That was before computers and fax machines, so to place an order for a book, you typed it in and mailed it.

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

When David took ownership in the 1970s, business was booming – and the store served as a social hub for a community of observant 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.

“For many people, reading was the most important form of relaxation.”

Farming families made up the lion’s share of the clientele and mainly chose adventure series and romance novels.

These days, fiction continues to fly off shelves — although the Hedleys have noted an uptake of non-fiction, particularly on “current issues” in politics, science and philosophy.

Jenny attributes this to a healthy distrust 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 right information, they’d rather read a book.”

Also popular in recent years has been the self-improvement section ~ featuring books like Aroha by Dr.

“The publisher originally only printed about 3,000 copies of their book – now they’ve made an effort to reprint it,” David said.

David and Kiwi author Renee Hollis.

“It reflects the times we live in – taking care of our mental health has become a real priority.”

The Hedleys say there was an initial trepidation in the industry after the rise of e-reading services like Kindle and Audible.

After all these years, however, it’s clear that nothing beats a “real” book.

“We get a lot of younger people, and they’re happy to be in a real bookstore,” Jenny said.

“They love picking up and holding a book, the smell of fresh paper, the feeling of turning the pages.

“Reading is a sensual experience. A screen cannot replace that.”

After almost 90 combined years in the book trade, it’s still “invigorating” for David and Jenny to come to work.

“You’re surrounded by so many different ideas every day,” David said.

“Through every book you get to know another person – and their thoughts and their memories. Every new book is like a new friendship.

“There are currently an estimated 200,000 book titles in New Zealand bookstores. I still find it incredible that the human brain can produce so many stories.

“It’s a great feeling to know that we can improve people’s lives by sharing these stories.”


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