Bruce McKenzie has been a local identity in book selling for many years. He spent 26 years with G H Bennett & Co Ltd on Broadway, Palmerston North, 12 years in publishing sales in Wellington, and in 1996 opened Bruce McKenzie Booksellers, in George Street, Palmerston North, with his daughter Louisa.
Interviewed by Leanne Hickman for the Ian Matheson City Archives.
LENGTH: 3 hours and 43 minutes
Part One: Start: Born in 1937. Brought up in Palmerston North first in Park Road in 1930s and 1940s. Went to College Street School. 2:10 Palmerston North in the context of the 1940s. Father’s accountancy firm (SI McKenzie Accountancy) on the top floor of A&P building in Broadway. Manawatu AA was also there. Second or third floor was 2ZA radio. 7:50. Grandparents lived next door in Park Road in a romantic large house with an overgrown tennis court. Playing in a large area. Grandfather set up the Wairarapa Times Age and became owner and editor before moving to Aokautere farming. Records of family at Aokautere School. 12.25. Grandfather Donald McLeod was the Manager of the Municipal Baths and the Opera House. 13.32. Remembered the berms mowed by the Council and using the long grass to make huts and playing causing allergies and asthma. 15:39. Teachers and students at College Street School. Remembering the war years at College Street School. Father went to WW2 and Bruce wrote letters and the family dug a trench in the back yard. Atmosphere of anti-Japanese. Remember Victory posters and had a stall selling fruit and other things to raise money for the troops. Not aware of the danger. First business enterprise. Reported in one of the papers which was a bit deal. (see below: Manawatu Standard, 1 March 1944). 24:40: Mother explained that some of the neighbours were poorer just after the Depression. Family across the road that had an outside toilet and used newspaper as toilet paper. Bruce’s family was in a better situation. 25:17: Went to Palmerston North Intermediate for one year and remembers it as being a great school. Remembers teacher Mary Robertson particularly fondly. Later became a customer and she never seemed to age. 28:33: The family moved house to Russell Street and Bruce biked to Intermediate. He remembers stopping for the railway lights running through town. 30:44: After WW2 father became important in the Employers Association. He was offered a big overseas trip to Geneva and Bruce’s parents went away for 6 months and Bruce went to Hadlow Preparatory School in Masterton in 1949. The school put Bruce back to Form 1 then he was a year behind when he went to Palmerston North Boys’ High. High School was difficult until 6th Form. 38:00: Russell Street house had a beautiful garden with a tennis court and had many upper-class garden parties. Bruce was expected to help with the gardening, but his dad was not a patient teacher. Bruce built cable cars from the house into the trees with Meccano. PART TWO: Start: Struggling in teenage years. Learning the piano and classical music appreciation. 3:40: Identifying as a gay man. 8:10: Went to university in Wellington and studied a BA in English, History and Geography. Rented a room in Kelburn. Joined the drama club at Victoria University and Unity Theatre. Produced a sound play by Samuel Beckett. (a reading of the play with sound effects). 14:11: Second year at university Bruce was in a production of the Taming of the Shrew directed by Pat Evison. Bruce has a small part as a huntsman alongside a young Roger Hall. The two men would become good friends. 17:15: Friend Ian Knowles had a job at the Student Christian Movement Bookshop and also worked at the university café. Gave both jobs to Bruce. Important step as Bruce loved the bookshop even though he did not identify as being Christian. Less enthusiastic about university. But enjoyed the theatre crowd. 25:13: Disappoint that ambition to become a radio announcer did not happen. Became very sick and went back to Palmerston North. Mum told Bruce that Bennett’s Bookshop had a job. Reluctantly agreed. 27:00: Became part of the Education Department at Bennett’s Bookshop – early 1960s. The education department was primary and secondary schools only. Enjoyed the work. 30:00: At 21, Bruce got a copy of Great Expectations to read in the downtime, but never got time to read it after the first chapter and has never finished it. Became friends with Bob McMurray, a theatre director and did some plays. The education department became a meeting place for teachers. 32:15: After about two years, was offered to come downstairs and become part of the book department. PART THREE: Start: Talks about the Bennett founder GH Bennett and the renaming of Broad Street to Broadway. 3:37: When Bruce started, Gordon and Harold Bennett were running the shop. Harold ran the stationary side and Gordon ran the book side. Gave Bruce the job of looking after the religious department and the technical book department. Responsibility of buying Bibles and motor manuals. 5:30: The book department at Bennett’s was large and elaborate which was a feature in other communities in New Zealand. 9:40: Book Nook in Rangitikei Street which Bruce would visit occasionally with a lady called Dorothy. 10:40: Bruce became a key point of contact for publishers in New Zealand such as Penguin, Collins and Random House. Bennett’s were also visited regularly from UK publishers. Felt part of the whole industry. 13:00: Eventually took over the whole book department from Phyllis Pygot. Wanted to diversify the book titles. 15:30: Bennett’s being stalwarts of the Methodist Church. Harold Bennett was a renegade and not a kind person. But they were a grand family and part of a Palmerston North institution and highly respected. However, simple Methodists and the Bennett’s did not spend money except on the shop or the Church. 22:45: GH Bennett had two daughters who married prominent men. They would come to visit occasionally, and Bruce would have to take them to lunch or morning tea because they would make the brothers nervous. 24:20: On of the daughter’s granddaughter is Jo McColl who is the owner of Unity Book in Auckland. Returned a Bennet’s commemorative plaque from the St Pauls Methodist Church to Jo McColl. Bruce received it on her behalf at a ceremony and sent it to her. 27:20: Gordon Bennett had two children: David and Mary. Mary’s husband, David McGregor, was the General Manager of Bennett’s when Bruce was there. He employed Richard Foxley from Ashhurst who became part of Bruce’s staff. They brought religious fundamentalism to the shop and Bruce remembers them burning some of the books. 32.27: Bruce became joint General Manager of the whole shop after David McGregor’s departure. He didn’t feel sufficiently trained in management at the time. 33:40: Gordon Bennett’s second wife, Enid Bennett was a Methodist minister at St Paul’s Church. After Gordon died, she became the controller of his interests. The brothers left the shop to the New Zealand Insurance Company to manage along with Enid Bennett who was part of the Board. This was late 1970s, early ‘80s. 39:00: Difficult period as the Board would not support Bruce’s ambitions for the bookshop. 39:41: In 1984 Bridget Williams an editor of the Oxford University Press New Zealand, offered Bruce a job to be Sales Manager at Allen and Unwin New Zealand and work in Wellington but still live in Palmerston North. Bruce accepted and left Bennett’s Bookshop after 26 years of service. 47:50: Meeting Mina through the Little Theatre. Bob McMurray asked Bruce to be in a production of ‘The Boyfriend.’ Got to know Bob and his wife Bessie and met Mina through them. It was 1963 as they heard the news about JFK’s assassination. Mina had been married to Barry Woods who was a theatre person and photographer. They had two children. Mina and Barry built the house Bruce is in now. They split up. She had a relationship with Jacob Hepi and had two more children. They split up. Bob and Bessie thought Bruce and Mina would get along well. 53:00: Bruce told Mina he was gay and couldn’t continue a relationship. Bruce went away and then a couple of years later they became involved again. He found he could love her and have a relationship with her. They were soulmates and he loved the children. PART FOUR: Start: Thought that a relationship with Mina would work and allow him to be a parent. He was 28-years old. It was an intellectual decision rather than a romantic one, but it worked very well. They went on to have two children of their own. Bruce’s mother was accommodating of suddenly having four instant grandchildren plus two more later. 3:30: Tricky as Mina had done it all before, but Bruce hadn’t. Mina was starting a degree in English at the time. It felt like they were rescuing each other and had similar ambitions, beliefs and interests. 7:20: Gradually, Mina became heavily involved in museum work and became very important to a lot of people outside the family. The eldest son at age 20, has a terrible accident which left him as a tetraplegic which led to very difficult years. 11:06: The next eldest son had two children, but he split up with his partner. The son and the children began to live with Bruce and Mina. Bruce was working in Wellington four days a week for Allen and Unwin. The son went surfing in Wairarapa came back and crashed on the corner of Pahiatua Track and Aokautere and he died. Bruce and Mina kept the children for a while, and they eventually went to their mother in Lower Hutt. 19:00: After bookselling, Bruce wanted to be a publisher but that didn’t happen, continued as a Sales Manager for Allen and Unwin until they were bought out by Collins. Allen and Unwin were the original publishers of Tolkien. 24:00: The Harper Collins representative from Shannon didn’t want the job anymore and Bruce became the Harper Collins rep for about 10 years. Through both Allen and Unwin and Harper Collins Bruce travelled a lot around New Zealand. Mina was a national figure by this time and was involved with Te Papa Museum. 28:30: While on a trip in Auckland, Bruce thought about opening a bookshop in Palmerston North with Dymocks Bookshops who had the rights to a become part of the bookshop in the Palmerston North library. Both Bruce’s parents had died and left some money. Mina agreed which was a surprise. Dymocks eventually faded away and Bruce opened the bookshop on his own. 31:25: Originally wanted a site on the other side of the Square where the library was but bought a lease on George Street and Bruce McKenzie Bookshop opened 15 Dec 1996, where it still is now. 33:50: On 11 March 1997 Mina died after collapsing at the dining table while she was balancing the books for the shop. Had heart issues and was under Mr Campbell McDonald the cardiologist. Community rallied around, particularly the Māori community. Bruce was grief-stricken for a long time. He was always loyal to Mina. 42:00: Setting up an additional educational bookshop across the road on George Street from the original bookshop in about 2006. 46:45: More idealistic than pratical as teachers don’t come to those kinds of bookshops anymore, the books are often sold directly to schools. Therefore worked as a grandparents shop rather than a teachers shop. But the crash of 2008 caused sales to go down. Also had a discount shop in Coleman Mall but had to let both extra shops go. 57:03: Vision for Bruce McKenzie Bookshop at the beginning. Bringing experiences from managment of Bennetts Bookshop. In 1996 Barcodes Solutions had a well-designed specific bookshop system which was one of the most expensive and Bruce is still using it today, 25 years later. Designed shop with Harvey Taylor who worked with Mina at the museum as a designer. 1:02:50: Main intention was to feature the books specifically. A calm look with deep colours so the books shone out. The counter in the middle and not facing the front door so people wouldn’t walk in and have staff looking at them. 1:05.40: Model for the shop was an Australian shop called the Hill of Content in Melbourne. He remembers it being beautiful with dark colours and a feeling of warmth about it. 1:12:03: Took on the shop expecting that the Council will give the bookshop a budget to supply the city library. The city library spent a lot at Bruce McKenzie which was both a good thing and a challenge. The library gradually began to spend elsewhere, which was ok. 1:18:58: Battles with Amazon and the online shops. Challenges of Covid Lockdown. Felt like everything was being handed over to Amazon. However, that didn’t happen and people are coming back to the local bookshop. 1:23:39: Challenge particularly of the Book Depository. They did a deal with the British Post Office that they would have free shipping. Can’t compete with discounted prices and not postage cost.