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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Interview: Paula Wagemaker talks about Thomas Gilchrist and Sons Limited of the Māniototo


Paula Wagemaker (née Clarke) has worked in the publishing industry for over forty years in various roles, but primarily as an editor of numerous publications on all manner of topics. She has co-authored several non-fiction books. Recent years have seen her increasingly engaged in history-based research and writing alongside her ongoing editing work. Paula lives with her husband Steve Aldridge in a rambling mudbrick farmhouse, built c. 1879, in the Ida Valley. Paula talks to NZ Booklovers.


Tell us a little about Thomas Gilchrist and Sons Limited of the Māniototo.

Thomas Gilchrist, born in Australia in 1858, established the shop in 1902. He left home at 12, eventually fetching up in the Māniototo region of New Zealand, where he worked on a sheep station, took up gold-mining and then worked in a store in Hyde. Liking store work, he decided he wanted a shop of his own. Why he decided to set up a general store in a place as remote as Ōtūrēhua is just one of the stories in the book. Why and how he, his wife Elizabeth, and their descendants made such a success of that store and became much loved members of the communities they served over the next eighty years is another. What has happened to the store since the family sold it 1989, and how the communities they served have helped keep the store open under the Gilchrist name down to the present day, are two other important stories. Today, the store is essentially a living museum; both inside and out it looks like a store of yesteryear and has numerous examples of bygone goods on its shelves, yet it is still run as a going concern.

What inspired you to create this book?

Rail trailers, tourists, passers-by coming into the shop are always intrigued by it and ask about its history. John and Helen Hellier, who currently run the store and its associated mail runs, decided telling the story of the store in book form would help answer those questions. John asked Judy Beck, Ida Valley genealogist and historian, and me, with my background in book publishing, if we’d help him put the book together. Yes, we said. The three of us also thought it valuable to record the store’s history, given our claim it is the longest continually operating general store in New Zealand. The store is also a reminder of a form of shopping that has all but disappeared from the retail landscape. Consequently, we were particularly keen to document the social history of the store by giving a strong sense of what it looked like, how it operated (including its store to door grocery and mail delivery services), who worked in it, and what it sold (everything from groceries and farm equipment to bespoke clothing and dynamite) down through the years. Finally, we wrote the book with the intention that proceeds from its sales would go to the upkeep of the store building and its memorabilia.


What research was involved?

Many, many hours’ worth. We interviewed members of the last generation of the Gilchrist family to own the store and their children as well as many other people associated with the store, including shop assistants and customers. Judy’s knowledge of local genealogy and local history was invaluable (she has written several local histories). We did a deep dive into store records and correspondence dating back to the store’s inception in 1902; scoured newspaper accounts through the online resource Papers Past; read letters and transcriptions of long-past radio interviews with Gilchrist family members; referred to numerous books, including local histories; raked through museum, council, library and archive records; and did Google searches on all sorts of topics (e.g., the companies that supplied the store in its early days, goods recorded in the shop’s accounts rarely known of today, such as Fat Black (coal-range cleaner)); the list goes on.


What was your routine or process when writing this book?

Our work on the book was entirely voluntary, which for John and me (Judy is retired) meant working on it when we could fit it in with our usual occupations. So it was a slow process. Judy and John sketched out those parts of the book they felt comfortable contributing to and I did the rest. I wrote drafts of the chapters, fleshing them out with research. The three of us met regularly to discuss the drafts, after which I’d get them into final form. That stage required me to wear both my writer and editor hats (I’m an editor by profession). The book has over 400 images, so sourcing and compiling those and writing captions for them was another job, as was preparing an index. I also oversaw the book through its design (by Quentin Wilson in Christchurch) and print (in Taiwan) stages.


If a soundtrack were made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

Welcome to Our World, the John Grenell version. We played this at the launch of the book because we felt it fitted the store in several ways: the warmth between the Gilchrists and their customers, the heritage look and status of the store, and the rural communities the store continues to serve.


What did you enjoy the most about producing this book?

The research, the collegiality between John, Judy, me and the many other people who supported the book’s production, and the knowledge the book’s proceeds would go to upkeep of the store.


What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

A launch and afternoon tea (tables groaning with food) in the Oturehua Hall that attracted 300 people and then some glasses of bubbly at the pub across from the hall and the store next to it.


What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

Probably a memoir I edited this year but cannot divulge details of yet. Of published books, The Swarm, by German author Frank Shatzing. Although published in 2004, the book’s themes have strong relevance for today in the face of climate change and environmental degradation.


What’s next on the agenda for you?

I have several editing projects and two writing projects on the go—so business as usual!


Quentin Wilson Publishing

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