When Kahren Thompson opened Slightly Foxed Secondhand Books, she gave every book purchased in the first year the code ‘A’.
Twenty-five years later, Ms Thompson is up to ‘Y’ – and she is “really hoping to make it” to next year to complete the alphabet.
Slightly Foxed Secondhand Books was one of the first retail shops in Oamaru’s Victorian precinct, and even served coffee before other cafes opened in the area.
The big, open space has been transformed over the past 25 years, with the addition of a dividing wall, a mezzanine floor and a wood-burning stove, although the latter is now just for show and after the installation of two more efficient heat pumps.
Before Oamaru established itself as a tourist town, it was tough for businesses in the historic area, and people were surprised she wanted to set up her shop in the draughty old precinct building, she said.
“I’ve seen lots of businesses moving in and out in the early days, and not succeeding in there because there weren’t enough tourists,” she said.
“The precinct was, for a long time, the area down there where the weirdos were, but I think Oamaruvians have embraced the area now.”
Ms Thompson moved to Oamaru from Auckland in the early ’90s with her then-partner, Michael O’Brien, and their daughter, Gamel.
an Auckland exhibition of black-and-white photos of the historic buildings.
“When we drove in to Oamaru, we came from the South, so we drove down Severn St with all of the beautiful oak trees and church spires and we just thought amazing’,” she said.
Mr O’Brien opened his bookbindery in Tyne St in 1994. The following year, Ms Thompson, a trained librarian, opened Slightly Foxed Secondhand Books next door, with her mother, Jenny Lynch-Blosse. Mrs Lynch-Blosse retired in 2015 and died in 2018.
The name of the shop refers to the age-related process that causes spots and browning on old books.
At present, there are about 12,000 books on the shelves, from common-place to rare and collectible, with prices ranging from $3 to the hundreds.
“It’s supplying that need that new book shops can’t supply,” she said.
Ms Thompson wears understated period dress and enters each sale into a spring-back ledger with a fountain pen.
Every purchase is wrapped in brown paper and tied with string.
While she has a website, she does not list books for sale on it.
Competing with the internet had been a challenge, but people still loved visiting secondhand book shops and seeing the books themselves, she said.
The online world also presented opportunities. This year, she bought several of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books and sold one through Instagram to Sotheran’s Rare Books and Prints – the oldest antiquarian bookshop in the world.
“I was really chuffed that they bought a book from me – those books are so rare.”
She also posts regular book reviews to her Instagram account @slightlyfoxedbooks.
Before Covid-19, the number of tourists visiting her store was growing. Many travellers bought books as souvenirs of their travels, she said.
While most sales were to visitors, she has always had a small local following, including Janet Frame and her niece, Pamela, in the shop’s early days.
“[Janet] very kindly signed half a dozen copies of Michael King’s biography, which flabbergasted me because she hardly signed anything,” she said.
Ms Thompson also worked at the Oamaru Library part-time for 16 years and was responsible for the Janet Frame collection.
Twenty-five years after first opening, Ms Thompson still looks forward to going to work every day.
“I still really like what I do. I like working for myself,” she said.
“The joy of the unexpected, I suppose. When someone says books?’ you have no idea what to expect, even if you ask them what they’ve got.”
Ms Thompson urged more Oamaru residents to visit the precinct and support local businesses.
“Whether or not New Zealand can generate enough tourists while its borders are closed, especially when a lot of people will be unemployed, is another question we don’t yet know the answer to.
“Support the businesses that you wouldn’t like to see go under.”