Urban designer Stuart Houghton has set himself a personal project of coming up with 100 ideas for improving Auckland at the rate of one a day. He is Tweeting them here: @HoughtonSd 

Discussing this project with Stuart he said that I see the city is getting better and better and growing up fast, but everywhere I look as I move about the city I am struck by ideas big and small for how Auckland could be improved. I see this as a positive thing.” 

We agree.

In this task he has been inspired by Jan Gehl the Danish urbanist who famously said:

“How nice it is to wake up each morning in a city that is a little bit better than it was before”

Stuart has kindly agreed to allow us to run them here over the next 100 week days, here’s #2, enjoy:

2: Whitcoulls Queen Street

What if Whitcoulls Queen Street actually was a flagship book store?!

New Zealand has quite an impressive family of long-established national retailers (think Farmers, Whitcoulls, Glassons and Hallensteins). Many of these brands are well over a 100 years old and have a presence on every main street and shopping mall in the country. So why is it that so many of them have such shameful stores in the central city? Right where you expect a flagship store. You know, one that showcases all the best the brand has to offer and maybe unique offerings not found in the everyday stores elsewhere? Is it that their retailing model has become so suburbanised that they have little interest in being part of the new action downtown?

Farmers, which started on Hobson Street, has closed its mediocre Queen Street store and no longer has a presence in the city at all. Last year Whitcoull’s Queen Street underwent a not insignificant renovation that sadly seemed to remove even more traces of the grand old building it occupies and provide even less reasons to visit for those in search of actual books and magazines (now banished to the top floor) as opposed to children’s games and toys.

While some, such as Glassons, have developed new exciting flagship retail spaces in central Auckland and Wellington, others seem seriously out of touch with the changes happening in our central cities. When will they start being more in sync with the new life happening in urban NZ?

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  1. In the vein of this, Auckland needs more comprehensive specialist stores.

    But they only exist when there is a sufficient concentration of people, and thus they cluster around city centres which have high pedestrian mode, and are facilitated by fast and efficient transport. Auckland is getting there again now.

  2. If an expanded bookshop was profitable do you think whitcoulls would already have done it? Half the books there at the moment seem to be cookbooks which must be profitable.

    While I loved the old borders store and do miss it, there must have been a reason for it closing. Internet books have taken over. Hope the same doesn’t happen to real groovy. Another institution.

    Anyway, great building whitcoulls is in. Love this stretch of buildings on queen st. Just hoping someone bowls the noel lemmings building to replace it with something that blends in better with the heritage buildings.

    1. A great precedent in Downtown LA is called the The Last Bookstore which is a mix of new/used books, author events etc. It is set up in a historic building (former bank). I think retail uses like this will surprise people who think that retail success is primarily based on price.

      1. Also, the idea of downtown flagship store is probably more of a branding exercise than a purely profits driven one. Look for stale companies re-branding themselves in high profile sites around the city…

  3. Book browsing isn’t exactly conducive here, when bookdepository.co.uk is usually an order of magnitude cheaper than New Zealand RRP. In other parts of the first world, the price differential between the high street and the internet isn’t so stark.

  4. Er, the current Whitcoulls building was the John Court department store until, I think, the mid 1970s. Whitcombe & Tombs was further down the road on the corner of Queen Street and Durham Lane and, indeed, it was a real bookshop in the sense that it stocked an extraordinary range of everything. It was a beacon of civilisation in what was a pretty dead place. Also a great stationery shop on the High Street level: I must have spent a small fortune buying Parker fountain pens there when I was at school. Went downhill when they changed the name.

  5. I think that it would be stretching the imagination a bit much to say that Queen St in its heyday was ever glamorous but it was an exciting place. The big department stores, the gaudy cinemas, the neon illuminations, the huge crowds, the motorbikes and even it’s peculiar dog’s leg layout all made it a mecca for Aucklanders. Sadly when all of this disappeared plus the removal of easy to use public transport, the street showed up as a very sad place and the building of the highrise towers looming over the gully location didn’t help much. It was just so much more pleasant to shop in the suburban shopping malls.
    These are Queen St’s problems and I don’t think that tarting up a few old building relics is going to improve things that much.

      1. Of course I have been in Queen St in the last ten years. I am in there most days. For me, living on the North Shore, it is the easiest place to get to by public transport and the two supermarkets have improved things a thousand percent. But I think that it is still a bit tacky.

  6. Who still believes that shopping on a main street is a glamorous place to go? We have malls in the suburbs now days with great car parking, lots of opportunities to socialize and you do not have to battle the traffic to cross from one shop to the other. Even Auckland’s other main streets are going down the drain – Papakura, Henderson, Papatoetoe. In the good old days you could only buy select items at Courts, Smith and Caughey and Farmers – today the same item is available in the suburbs. If you are going to resurrect Queen Street as a shopping precinct remove the traffic and make it a long up hill mall. But the smartest retailers have made the move to where the money is being spent – that is in the suburbs.

    1. Really? I cant stand malls – and I don’t think I’m the only one. Give me real sun, sky, outdoor places which I don’t have to drive to any day.

    2. Umm Queen St is resurrected, it’s thronging with thousands of people. These days Saturday and Sunday are as busy as weekend lunchtime.

      I take it Don is another who hasn’t set foot in town in a decade or two? Like my old man, met me in the city and he asked me what event was on that had so many people on Queen St. No event, just Saturday afternoon shoppers!

  7. Borders in Queen Street (and elsewhere) created a “people space” within their bookstore, encouraging people to hang out there. It was quite a popular and vibrant space, people-wise. You could often find 100+ people in there. But there was a major flaw to the concept – people would go in, “hang out” (often reading their favourite magazine cover to cover), then leave without actually buying anything. By encouraging people to stay, they also weakened their reasons to buy anything. There’s no money to be made from people who are just “hanging out”. You could actually find the store (which had three levels) chocka with people, but the retail staff standing idle behind the counter with nobody lined up waiting to be served. The financials worsened and they eventually went out of business. Successful stores know that throughput is important for making money. Get them in, buy, get them out. And to achieve that, you have to focus on high-demand product (which generally means less range), so you get more people coming in for a pre-determined purchase rather than browsing for hours trying to decide.

    1. Alot retailers and businesses want people to linger eg. supermarkets, casinos, department stores, etc etc. The longer you stay, the more you see, the more you may spend.

      Would love to have a great large bookshop back. Unity does an admirable job for its size.

  8. Yes Don, malls are the way to go -so efficient -you only have to dodge cars twice on visits, albeit that there are thousands of them.

    I see that we are widening the Northern motorway up to Albany and it seems that the only purpose is to assist weekend traffic to the Westfield mall. It’s probably a RoNS (road offering notable shopping) and therefore economically well worth funding.

    1. I went to the Westgate mall out the end of the North Western a few weeks ago and was amazed how badly it was designed. You had groups of half a dozen (or less) stores separated by busy carparks, often without paths or crossings between them (eg between the “food court” and postshop areas).

      Managed to combine the worst of a traditional shopping area and a mall. However I’ve been in other “outdoor” malls that have been better arranged.

  9. Funny this should be posted today – I happened to wander in to Whitcoulls Queen St literally 3 days ago for the first time in about 10 years. I was naively hoping to find a great bookstore that actually stocked books that I couldn’t get at St Luke’s. Alas.

    Back to the book depository I go.

    1. If you like browsing physical books (as many of us do), then Unity Books on High St is just around the corner. It’s pretty good, by most standards.

  10. In a league of their own. Here are my favourite (book) stores with a long history in historic buildings in central city locations:
    Lello (Porto)
    Shakespeare & Company (Paris)

    1. I haven’t been to either of those, but I really do love Kinokuniya, which exists in major cities throughout Asia (and Sydney). A huge range of Japanese and international books and magazines, of every kind.

  11. To be honest I think NZ book shops deserve to go out of business. Obviously due to the smaller market and distribution costs books sold in shops here will usually cost more than books sold in shops in the USA or UK. So I could understand paying maybe 10%-20% more for books here. However when I as a private individual paying retail rather than trade prices can buy a single book from overseas, pay for shipping to NZ, and the total cost is half of what I would pay in Whitcoulls, let alone a small independent store, the retailers are clearly taking the mickey.

  12. Agree the farmers Queen St story was awful – but the people who own Farmers are the ones who bought Whitcoulls which explains why that Queen St store has also become so mediocre when it could be so interesting.

  13. So this blokes #2 idea for all of Auckland is to tell Whitcoulls how to run their business??

    Any chance we can stop following this bloke at idea #2? I’m not sure I can mentally cope with another 98!

    1. No. The point isn’t to tell others how to run businesses. The point is to think about and express the things that would make the city better. There may be practical and reasonable ways to implement some. Not all of these are immediately obvious and some require creative thinking or new preconditions.

  14. Funnily enough, he’s describing that exact store as it almost was in the mid-90’s. It was a flagship and encouraged people to stay (even had a cafe on the mezzanine). It was four floors of retail. I worked there then, and it was a great environment, except Whitcoulls never treated it as a serious book store. It was always lowest common denominator, and their merchandising tactic was to get in piles of stock and just pile it up. A shame, it could have been awesome. Wrong owners, wrong attitude.

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