Time Out bookstore owner Wendy Tighe-Umbers - interview

by Clare de Lore / 14 October, 2016
Bookseller of the Year owner Wendy Tighe-Umbers has discovered the recipe for success.
Photo/Mike Rooke
Photo/Mike Rooke

During her 30 years as a teacher and administrator, Wendy Tighe-Umbers found herself with precious little time to indulge her love of reading. A health scare in her mid-fifties spurred her decision to retire, fuelled by dreams of leisurely hours whittling down her piles of unread books.

But her retirement plans were barely hatched before they were thrown into the air by a phone call, and for the past 14 years, Tighe-Umbers has been at the helm of Time Out Bookstore in Mt Eden, surrounded by thousands more books. The small, friendly, well-stocked shop has been a favourite with Aucklanders since it opened 28 years ago; Tighe-Umbers and her team were recently rewarded when Time Out was named Bookseller of the Year at the New Zealand Book Industry Awards.

How did you end up owning Time Out?

It was an impulse, as I’d never thought about owning a bookshop. A girlfriend rang me on a Sunday night and said, “Your favourite bookshop is for sale.” I rang the lady who owned it that night and had signed and bought it by Thursday. I could hardly believe it; that’s how quickly it happened.

What has the experience been like?

Fantastic, I’ve loved every minute of it. It’s a retirement job that’s gone on for 14 years. Some of the skills you have from teaching, you can apply – delegation being the No 1 skill. It was the first skill I learnt as a teacher, and I’ve just about delegated myself out of a job here. I have amazing staff; they all have to be a lot smarter than me or they wouldn’t be hired.

Photo/Time Out collection
Photo/Time Out collection

The death knell of independent bookshops has been rung constantly over the past decade. What are the ingredients for ensuring a small independent shop can thrive?

Young people – they’re my secret. People my age are good for knowledge, how to delegate, but all these modern things such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – the young ones are so quick at setting them up. If the computer breaks, they can fix it. If it was just me, I’d be thinking who to ring to fix it, but they do it all.

I don’t have to pick staff any more, do the roster, the marketing and newsletter; all those decisions are made by Jenna [Todd] and the team. We try to always have three people downstairs, so if you come in and want to chat about books, there is someone to do that with and that person isn’t also trying to serve at the counter. We want to give our customers that service.

Have you delegated everything?

My job is to pay the bills and do all the book buying. I always have one of the young, Ian [Brown], with me so there are two of us – the old girl and a young fresh face, male and female. You’ve got to remember when buying that you’re not just buying for you, which is why I always have somebody young by my side.

There isn’t a lot of money in books, but we don’t do badly. I’m very careful about the buying. I do the backlist every night without fail; I look at what we’ve sold and decide what we need to reorder.

Although I don’t go behind the counter and serve people, I do go downstairs to talk to people about books. It’s good at Christmastime, for example, when people my age want to know what to buy.

What other things make your shop different?

We open late – Mt Eden is busy at night and we’d be foolish not to be open. We’re busy right up until we close at nine. We work symbiotically with the cafe next door. They’re closed right now for renovations and I told them I need them to hurry up and reopen. People think they’ll go and buy a book for a gift perhaps and then have a coffee, or vice versa. Similarly, if there was no one around at nine in the morning, we wouldn’t open, but the cafes are open and there’s a demand.

We also do a lot of nice things here – we give away a lot of biscuits. Every time we have a special thing, my daughter-in-law makes some special biscuits; at Christmastime, she makes more than 1000. Mother’s Day, Halloween – people like it.

We also have lots of authors here, and we love it when they come. And my cat is often here. Lucy comes to work – she’s just been made the face of Purina One cat food. She’s on the catwalk.

Photo/Time Out collection
Photo/Time Out collection

Your upstairs lounge has also become a hub for book lovers.

Sometimes publishers give us free books and we like to do giveaways and competitions with the kids. The community use the upstairs room all the time. Jenna’s set up a timetable and the room is used every night by book clubs. We don’t have to run it – they bring their book club here, which they like because if you have an open-plan home, you don’t have to kick the kids and husband or wife out, or tidy the house.

The other advantage to coming here is that we close at nine, so the book club has to go then, too. When you have a book club at home, you might have work the next day and just one person who’s still there at midnight. They only have to bring wine and some food; we have tea and coffee, glasses and cups. We also have a dishwasher, so it’s easy.

Eden Arts meets here and also a philosophy group, a teen book group, some writing groups and poetry evenings, and we have book launches. I don’t let political parties meet here and I turned down someone wanting to have a seance.

What do you like to read?

I’m a huge reader, although I didn’t read so much all the years I was teaching, because you’re doing university papers and don’t get a lot of time unless they are textbooks. So I get a bit sick of books set in universities. I like dark books, a bit of killing or murder.

I loved Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. That was amazing – a dark book, not so much a whodunnit but something that makes you think as you go along. I just read The Heavenly Table, by Donald Ray Pollock. He writes like Cormac McCarthy, American-western style, with a few people dying – you can imagine the Coen brothers making a movie out of it. The one before that was The Devil All the Time [Pollock] and I just couldn’t put it down.

In a good week, I read three books. Some of the young people here read that much; it depends what we have going on. They all read. Ian likes sci-fi; some of his favourite books are Revenge by Yoko Ogawa, In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje and The Wars by Timothy Findley. Jenna’s favourites include The First Bad Man by Miranda July, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson and Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag. We also have someone who likes graphic novels, some of the younger staff like reading Young Adult books and we have staff who like poetry, which is not my thing. There’s something for all of us.

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