Story: Parsons, Roy George

Page 1 - Biography

Parsons, Roy George

1909–1991

Bookseller

This biography was written by Bridget Williams and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Roy Parsons sold books in Wellington for nearly 50 years, changing the intellectual climate of the city and opening the minds of several generations of New Zealanders to the world of books and ideas. The son of a schoolmaster, George Henry Parsons, and his wife, Beatrice Sparrow, Roy George Parsons was born in Gravesend, Kent, England, on 24 June 1909. After leaving school at 16 he worked for an oil company and then at the Westminster Bank in London. A member of a Fabian society, he read widely and debated contemporary issues vigorously, laying the groundwork for a lifetime of critical appraisal of the world around him. On 12 September 1936, at Westminster, he married Annie (Nan) Eileen Baldock, a recent graduate in law from Oxford University. The marriage automatically terminated her employment in the British public service. They were to have three sons and a daughter; all later became associated with the book trade.

Internationalist in outlook, the young couple were impressed by the visiting Walter Nash’s account of New Zealand under the newly elected Labour government. At the same time they were dismayed by British foreign policy as war threatened Europe. So in late 1938 Nan Parsons invested £40 of a £100 family insurance policy in a boat ticket, and set off for New Zealand with letters of introduction. Historian J. C. Beaglehole and his wife, Elsie, were among her first acquaintances. Beaglehole was active in the left-wing Wellington Co-operative Book Society, and Nan convinced the society’s management committee that her husband was the person they were seeking to start a new bookshop. In early 1939, after being interviewed by British publisher Victor Gollancz on behalf of the society, Roy Parsons left the London bank to manage a Wellington bookshop, Modern Books.

An independent-minded man, he found it uncomfortable working for a committee. The Second World War intervened, and from 1942 to 1946 Parsons served with the Royal New Zealand Air Force as an equipment officer in New Zealand and Guadalcanal. Now young parents, the couple saved hard. In 1947, with capital of £350, Roy opened his own bookshop upstairs at 288 Lambton Quay, moving a year later to Woodward Street nearby. A strong design sense was present from the start: the narrow room was enlarged by a balcony, and a mirror extended the book-filled space. This was a different kind of co-operative venture: Nan Parsons recalled Elsie Beaglehole scrubbing a dusty floor, and John Beaglehole with Roy on a trestle painting the high ceiling.

Blackwood Paul, an experienced publisher and bookseller, advised that magazines and newspapers would need to be prominent. But Parsons was committed to selling books, and only books that had ‘the stuff of life in them’. His success was immediate: it was said that students, on hearing of a new shipment at Parsons, would leave lectures to inspect it. Book sales were encouraged by Parsons Packet , a lively periodical of extracts, reviews and comment produced for New Zealand readers (with contributions from local writers) from 1947 to 1955.

In 1958 Parsons relocated his shop to 126 Lambton Quay, a capacious ground-floor space in Massey House, designed by the Austrian architect Ernst Plischke; Plischke and his wife, Anna, were among the close group of friends that the Parsonses, as immigrants themselves, formed in Wellington. Roy and Nan embraced Plischke’s concept of ‘design and books’ on a central city street. The walls were lined with Penguins in single-colour dustjackets (orange for fiction, green for crime), and the best new books from Britain and America. Up a curved flight of stairs was a coffee bar, run by the family of entrepreneur Harry Seresin, and the shop became famous as a meeting place. However, just as the new shop opened, the government re-introduced import controls; Roy’s licence covered only the level of stock appropriate for the rooms in Woodward Street. A long trading relationship with the Wellington libraries helped, and the licence of the Lower Hutt Municipal Public Library kept the Massey House bookshelves filled with imported books.

In the 1970s British publishers began to ‘close the market’ in New Zealand. Roy Parsons, along with his son Julian and occasionally Nan, had always ordered directly from overseas publishers, based on reviews in international periodicals and the British trade magazine the Bookseller. Now local distributors and their sales representatives claimed all orders; the Parsonses’ buying traditions continued, but with added complexity. Educational suppliers also began to encroach on the bookshop’s sales to libraries (previously a third of its turnover), and eventually this part of the business disappeared. These were, however, years of intellectual ferment and political activism, New Zealand publishing was expanding, and ‘Roy Parsons, Bookseller’ remained a vigorous enterprise.

In 1968 the rent at Massey House tripled, and for the next few years Parsons sold books around the corner in Masons Lane, with a small front shop in Massey House. In 1976 the bookshop returned to the Massey House space. Music (begun in the 1950s with a small collection of long-playing records in a corner) became an increasingly important part of the business as Julian took over the management through the 1980s, working with his sister Beatrice. Another son, Roger, and his wife, Helen, opened a separate Parsons Bookshop in Auckland in 1975, and the eldest child, Jeremy, worked in printing and publishing for many years in Britain.

Nan and Roy Parsons shared a love of ideas throughout their lives. Nan joined the New Zealand Federation of University Women and was active in its Wellington history group; she also worked periodically in the bookshop while bringing up four children. In 1954, when her youngest child went to kindergarten, she returned to study, gaining high marks and delighting in the intellectual stimulus of the philosophy classes taught by George Hughes at Victoria University College. In later years she was a keen tapestry maker.

A long-time member of the Booksellers’ Association of New Zealand, Roy Parsons served on its council (1948–80), as vice president (1955–57 and 1977–79), and as president (1957–59 and 1979–80). Taking a stand against the conventional views of New Zealand booksellers (often stationers as much as booksellers), he found himself frequently in opposition, but his political capacities and wide perspective won respect from people as varied as David and Peter Emanuel (of the popular London Bookshops) and educational bookseller Frank Barnard. He played a key role in introducing initiatives such as book tokens (based on a similar British scheme) in the 1940s, in co-operative organisations such as the New Zealand Book Council and the New Zealand Book Trade Organisation, and in the Book of the Month marketing plan.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Parsons worked with Booksellers’ Association members and politicians to end import controls. Just as he worked to professionalise the book-trade organisation, he lobbied for a more systematic approach to censorship, leading to the establishment of the Indecent Publications Tribunal in 1964. In 1970, with the support of law professor George Barton, he sought a writ to stop the All Black rugby tour of South Africa; the action failed, but foreshadowed the case that put an end to the proposed 1985 tour.

Roy Parsons defied book-trade wisdom by building a sound business on a passion for ideas and excellence, and enjoyed himself doing so. He was prepared to challenge society’s conservatism, and what he frequently saw as the idiocies of government (although he was personally a friend of many Wellington bureaucrats and a few politicians). He could be acerbic, and his determination sometimes earned the epithet ‘opinionated’. By nature reserved, he was never short of conversation when an idea seized him. Generous in quiet and specific ways, he lent support to other booksellers and in 1981 to a new publishing company, Port Nicholson Press.

Roy Parsons died in Wellington on 25 October 1991, survived by Nan and their children. Until the last weeks of his life he could be found upstairs in the bookshop on Lambton Quay, on the mezzanine among the art books. Even as cancer began to claim him, the wiry figure with its trim beard, cigarette in hand, was always ready for a strong coffee and some vigorous debate about the books of the day and the world around him.