Why New Zealand is still in love with used book fairs

Crowds page through the bargains every year at the GABBS Book Fair in Auckland.
Crowds page through the bargains every year at the GABBS Book Fair in Auckland. Photo credit: RNZ / Nik Dirga

Nik Dirga for RNZ

People like to get lost in a good book, but how about getting lost in thousands of them?

Whether it's the latest Lee Child or a vintage Patricia Grace novel, the time-honoured local book fair is the place to scoop up a bargain and a good read.

Fairs are held year-round far and wide, ranging from events that fill stadiums to smaller fund-raisers by schools and community clubs.

One of the largest is Auckland's GABBS 24-Hour Book Fair this Saturday and Sunday. The free festival runs 9am Saturday to 1am Sunday, and again 7am to 3pm Sunday at Barfoot & Thompson Stadium in Kohimarama.

It's the 28th year of the festival, hosted by the stadium and East City Community Trust.

The entire stadium floor will be filled with books, ranging from Mills & Boon romances to best-selling fiction. Most are priced at $3 each, with children's books at $2.

Volunteers will put out 1400 banana boxes' worth.

"I would say we've got 70 to 80,000 books (this year)," GABBS Trust secretary and fair organiser Barbara Gwilliam said.

Last year, after Covid-19 cancelled the 2021 event, the total surged to 2000 boxes of books to sell.

In the stacks, there's an archaeology of recent popular reads. A few years ago, well-thumbed Dan Brown thrillers were everywhere, but today it's easy to pick up a complete set of 50 Shades of Grey books for $5 or so.

In the Bay of Plenty, the Tauranga Harbour City Lions will host a huge sale at the Tauranga Racecourse from 10-12 November. Nine hundred banana boxes are ready for the sale, which began in 2007.

"They'll be queuing at the door on Friday week and some of them will have a thermos with their coffee," said Christine Currie, convenor of the Lions sale. "And you'd better not get in front of anybody in line."

In Nelson, the Founders Book Fair held each June has been running since 1988.

"We probably sell approximately 100,000 books and the fair has an attendance of approximately 30,000 people, many of whom come more than once," treasurer for the Friends of Founders Peter Rigg said.

For years, Auckland's GABBS fair went 24 consecutive hours through the night, but traffic at 3am Saturday night was pretty minimal, Gwilliam said. Now it opens for a total of 24 hours, with a six-hour break in the middle.

"It used to be hilarious... There used to be people that had gone to dress-up parties in full costume. We've had wedding parties and people sort of drunk as skunks."

In Nelson, the Founders' fair raises money for the historical museum and playground at Founders Heritage Park. Rigg said it all began with the idea of saving books from the tip.

"The concept of the Founders Book Fair originated with Amy Brooke who was frustrated by the lack of used book shops in Nelson and shocked to discover so many unwanted books ended up as landfill."

The Auckland GABBS fair raises money for sports clubs and community groups. This year Blind Low Vision NZ will be one of the beneficiaries. Over in Tauranga, the Lions help out a wide variety of local groups.

Putting on the fairs is a massive endeavour. Books are heavy and sorting through donations isn't easy.

Just two people sort the thousands of books that are donated each year at GABBS; Gwilliam and fellow organiser Robyn Faithfull.

"The people that drop off books, it's like parting with one of their family. People are very passionate."

Books can come from people downsizing, estate sales, even closed bookstores. Staff filter through donations to weed out those too ragged or battered for resale.

"We do have quality control," Gwilliam said.

Each year starts fresh, with no leftovers. But unsold books at the end of the GABBS fair aren't thrown in the bin.

Leftover books go to numerous community and school initiatives in Auckland, but many end up in Papua New Guinea as part of the From Me To PNG literacy initiative.

"We're helping not just locally, we're helping out outside New Zealand as well," Gwilliam said.

Despite dire predictions over the fate of books in the age of the internet, book fairs remain healthy. The GABBS fair will see crowds elbow to elbow prospecting for buried treasure from Shakespeare to Stephen King.

"A few years ago we all got scared about the Kindle and we probably did have a dip," Gwilliam said, but numbers have started going up again.

In Tauranga they see "hundreds and hundreds of people that are looking for bargains, it's all across the board," Currie said. "We do better each year."

Advertising book fairs on social media helps them grow and bring in all ages. Book lover groups online also help spread the word.

"I think that's been a huge impact to us and it's brought in younger people too," Gwilliam said.

In Nelson, June's fair was a bit slower than in past years, Rigg said, which he attributed to the economy. But there's still plenty of life in book fairs.

"I think that books are still popular and with them available at such a bargain price they are irresistible and that means that people can still enjoy the tactile experience of handling and reading a book without any financial pain, and of course a book can be read anywhere, especially outside in the sun."

Everybody has their favourite wants, said Currie.

"We have ladies coming in with lists of who their favourite authors are, and men who go straight for the nonfiction section."

The GABBS fair's Gwilliam, who handles thousands of books a year, made a confession.

"Guess what? I'm not a book person," she said. "I'm one of those people that volunteers for many groups so I don't have a lot of spare time... if I started a book at bedtime I'd fall asleep on page one."

Fortunately, there are plenty of eager readers out there willing to take those books off her hands.