• Sarah Forster

The third place for children's book aficionados

Ruth McIntyre runs The Children's Bookshop in Kilbirnie, and is in the process of selling it to a new loving owner. Sarah Forster went to talk to her one dreary Saturday, capturing memories of the past, and dreams for the future of the shop.



Here is how you set up a bookshop. Take passion; gather shelves from where they’re going spare; choose a location—start small; and work out who your clientele will be. That’s what Ruth and John did in 1992, when they opened The Children’s Bookshop in Kilbirnie.

“John heard a motivational speaker on the radio soon after having his kidney transplant, then talked to me about it. We had about 25 grand or something saved, I think. So we thought, well, let's just give it go, and if it doesn't work, then we've used up $25,000, but at least we won’t die wondering. I just had faith in him. He was a smart guy,” says his widow Ruth McIntyre.


I just had faith in him. He was a smart guy

When they initially began the shop in 1992, Ruth was working as a shift editor for the NZ Press Association. Ruth was pregnant with Kate, and their son Sam was at primary school in Lyall Bay when the shop opened.


“John had some experience with bookshops, having spent several years as a travelling stationary salesperson, and always thought the lifestyle looked like something he would enjoy. He began as the only bookseller, and employed a part-timer to help later on."



Ruth, Rebekah Turner and John in their screenprinted Hogwarts t-shirts for the release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

As a mum of two, I wondered at their ability to juggle shop/work/home life. Ruth put it down to her parents living nearby, her shift work, and a wonderful carer.


She joined John running the shop full time after eight years, and they began focusing their business on school libraries more, starting a long-running school newsletter, and speaking at Wellington Library Cluster and SLANZA meetings. The newsletter only went online last year when the cost of postage for a letter went up to $1.40 domestically.


“We had some lean years. The year we opened, when I was on maternity leave, we bought a half a beast from the butcher, so we had plenty of beef, and we just stocked up. In that year there were a few times where we were down to the last five dollars or something. But we got by. We just had to,” says Ruth.


But most of the time the business grew. John joined Booksellers NZ (in its 100th year this year!), and they went to conferences to meet with others in the industry. “We loved mingling with people who loved books. Loved the whole bookshop, retailing experience, loved reading, and loved voicing their opinions. We made a lot of friends through being members of Booksellers, and it's been one of the highlights.”


Paul Greenberg, Gary Pengelly, Ruth McIntyre, Stella Chryostomou, Lucy Bailey at Booksellers NZ's 96th conference. Photos by Yuri Sato.

With Ruth working full time they were able to up their marketing; John secured a fortnightly gig with Kathryn Ryan on Radio NZ’s Nine to Noon chatting about children’s books. Ruth says that gave them a huge, nationwide profile. “Not necessarily everyone bought from us, they would go into their local bookshop, but it still just gave us a good boost of publicity.”


While the Children’s Bookshop in particular, and indie bookshops generally are growing worldwide, something the pair were horrified to see was a trend towards the closure of school and public libraries. John used to say to future parents: "Use your libraries, there are a dozen in Wellington, and you'll probably have driven past four of them to get here to this meeting. There might be one that you just have to have, and that's when you come to me and you buy it."


If libraries close, people forget about books, and she has seen many school libraries downsize to make room for more classrooms. That sometimes means no school librarians. Ruth says this is dangerous, “It’s so powerful for a librarian to read books to the kids, and for a teacher to read books. It’s sometimes the only stories kids will hear.” And where libraries stop being valued, books do as well.


Ruth says this is dangerous, “It’s so powerful for a librarian to read books to the kids, and for a teacher to read books. It’s sometimes the only stories kids will hear.” And where libraries stop being valued, books do as well.

I wondered what Ruth considered to be the secret to a good children’s book. Ruth reckons it’s simple—“get rid of the parents."


"I love authors like Katherine Rundell, who did The Explorer and The Good Thief; and I’ve always loved Eva Ibbotson. When she died we did a tribute window and we wrote to her son, and we sent him a photo of it, and we just said, ‘We loved your mother's books so much.’ And he was lovely. He wrote back and said, ‘Thank you. I'm glad to hear that people in New Zealand enjoyed them.’”


These are the types of books that Ruth and her staff hand sell to customers. While their skill in matching books with customers is second-to-none, Ruth also has a few more basic retail tricks up her sleeve to keep customers coming back. Free gift-wrapping being the key. “We are busy every Saturday morning with last-minute present buyers!”



“Bookshops need to offer good service, and read their stock, know their stock,” says Ruth.

“Because all our people, all the people pretty much here, are buying for someone else. They're not really buying for themselves, and they don't always know what's out there.”


Ruth has been running the store with her staff for four years, and it was initially a learning curve. John had always been the back-end person, dealing with the delicate balance of buying and selling and paying bills. She would always remember him saying, "Nothing focuses you more on buying books than knowing you've got to pay for them." So she has that in the back of mind when with her sales reps.


And more recently, along came COVID-19. The success of brick and mortar retail requires a shop to be open. Ruth thought, "Well, sorry John, but if we go under, it's not my fault. Blame the pandemic." Up until that point, the only day they had shut the shop on a working day was the day of John’s funeral.



And more recently, along came COVID-19. The success of brick and mortar retail requires a shop to be open. Ruth thought, "Well, sorry John, but if we go under, it's not my fault. Blame the pandemic." Up until that point, the only day they had shut the shop on a working day was the day of John’s funeral.

She thinks they were fortunate to escape COVID-19 unscathed, but also recognizes that it had a silver lining. “I think a lot of people started to rethink their priorities with how they wanted to live. Maybe they rediscovered reading while they were locked down. They ran out of books to read, but also so many people have mentioned since that they want to buy local. They want to support local businesses, and there seems to be quite an upsurge in that, which is a really nice side-effect of a bad situation.”

This was the case throughout Aotearoa, and the Nielsen book data figures reflected a huge upswing particularly for locally-published books.


Bookshop staff with Jacqueline Wilson after she had talked to 600 people at an event organised by the bookshop, and signed for 3.5 hours


Ruth wants to see the bookshop stay open, because there's a lot of love for it out there, and there are a lot of people who would be upset if it did close.


“I’m looking for someone, or some people, who will keep the ethos of the place, carry on that community feel. The service is really important. We go out of our way to match up people with their books.

Ruth is going to miss the shop. “I'll miss the customers, and I'll miss when you open up boxes of new books. Books that you've ordered three months ago, you know they're coming, but you forget about them. And then all of a sudden you open, there's these gorgeous new books. It's a bit like Christmas really, like having lots of wee Christmases every month. We all get quite excited. Someone will come out and show us one particular book and we all goo and gah over it.


“It's a lovely product to be involved with, children's literature. There are so many fabulous books out there for kids. So I will sort of miss that, but I just feel it's time to go out before it becomes too much for me. Whoever does take it on will find their own ways of doing things better, and will have fresh ideas, which is what you want.”

“It's a lovely product to be involved with, children's literature. There are so many fabulous books out there for kids. So I will sort of miss that, but I just feel it's time to go out before it becomes too much for me. Whoever does take it on will find their own ways of doing things better, and will have fresh ideas, which is what you want.”

“It's a lovely product to be involved with, children's literature. There are so many fabulous books out there for kids. So I will sort of miss that, but I just feel it's time to go out before it becomes too much for me. Whoever does take it on will find their own ways of doing things better, and will have fresh ideas, which is what you want.”


“Don’t die wondering,” said a man on the radio the day John McIntyre committed to start a bookshop in Wellington. He didn’t. He died knowing he was loved by a range of people for a range of different reasons, for his Children’s Bookshop, and his quiet charity.


Book recommendations from Ruth:

  • The Unadoptables by Hana Tooke. “It's orphans making good, and there is a bit of fantasy in that, while I’m not always a fantasy fan.”

  • Picture book classics Each Peach Pear Plum, The Gruffalo, The Hungry Little Caterpillar

  • Gavin Bishop’s Aotearoa and Wildlife of Aotearoa

  • Voyage of the Sparrowhawk, by Natasha Farrant “It's nice discovering books that you really enjoy and can hand sell like that.”

sarah forster


Sarah Forster is the co-founding editor of The Sapling. She has two kids, and her day job is as a Comms maven for Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.