Posted by: bluesyemre | April 4, 2022

The #bookseller at the end of the world

Ruth and Lance Shaw at her bookshop in Manapōuri. With them is Cove, a fisherman’s dog who they look after while he’s away at work.

Ruth Shaw’s life has been crammed with incredible adventure, and at times damned by terrible tragedy. There have been pirates, and prostitutes, and protests, and pig farming; gold mining, gambling, and grief. But, as Mike White discovers, at 75, Shaw has finally found solace in Manapōuri, where she runs three tiny bookshops.

In June 2020, Ruth Shaw was wrapping up an interview with RNZ’s Kim Hill, about the bookshops Shaw had built in Manapōuri, on the fringe of Fiordland.

“A number of people, Ruth, are telling me to tell you that you have to write your memoirs,” said Hill. “Are you doing that?”

“No, my husband keeps on telling me that,” replied Shaw, “but I think everybody’s got a story to tell.”

“Oh don’t give me that,” Hill shot back. “Ruth, you know as well as I do, some people are very, very boring – and you are not.”

The truth was, the discussion that sparked those calls for Shaw to write her life story, had only revealed a small part of what Shaw had done and been through.

Deserting from the Navy. Life sailing the Pacific and Indian oceans. Life with the sex workers and drug addicts of Kings Cross. The son she had to give up, the son she lost at birth, the four husbands.

So, it was almost predictable that days later, Shaw took a call from Allen & Unwin publisher Jenny Hellen​, asking if she’d like to write a book.

There was demurring, reluctance, concerns for those around her, but eventually Shaw started typing.

Now, her biography, The Bookseller at the End of the World, is about to be published, 300 pages of living that act as the antithesis of boring, yet have provided a peace Shaw has sought her whole life.

A week after she turned 17, Ruth Shaw was raped.

It was at a monthly dance near Ranfurly, in the back of a bus she’d been led to, by young men she knew.

Her family had shifted to nearby Naseby several years before, her father working as the town clerk, town butcher, a gold miner in summer and curling master in winter.

Shaw had left college after school certificate, and was working as a cook at Ranfurly Hospital when she was attacked.

Nine months later, in April 1964, having been sent to Wellington as was the ritual for pregnant unweds, she gave birth to a son. Shaw wasn’t even allowed to hold him, his adoption by strangers also the automatic custom at the time.

Later that year, Shaw joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service as a sick berth attendant at Auckland’s naval hospital.

But the starched uniformity of Navy life was an ill-fit for Shaw, who had always walked her own course. As her grandmother told her: “Ruthie, I know you try to be good, but you just aren’t.”

After two years, seeing few prospects of going to sea or advancing her nursing career, Shaw piled her possessions into her Ford Prefect, and deserted, the first New Zealand “WREN” to ever go AWOL.

She got as far as Wellington before naval police caught her, and made her turn around and drive back to Auckland.

Placed under arrest, every week she would march before the Commodore, announce herself as WREN Hobday 1382, and request to be discharged from the Navy. Every week, the Commodore turned her down.

Eventually, he realised it was pointless, and Shaw was dishonourably discharged.

The Commodore’s final disparaging words were that Shaw would never make anything of herself, and never get a job at sea.

Shaw swivelled on her heel, marched out, and set her mind on proving him wrong.

She sought immediate refuge on Stewart Island, where her parents were running the pub, and began work as a cook.

Lance Shaw was crewing on crayfish boats, and the best looking guy on the island.

Before long, they were engaged, the church booked, the invitations printed, the dress fitted, and their rings made from gold Ruth’s father had mined in Central Otago.

Lance was willing to convert to Catholicism to marry Ruth, but baulked at the requirement they must bring up their children as Catholics. To his mind, their children should be free to choose for themselves, and it was a step too far.

The engagement was broken off, and Lance left the island.

It would be nearly 20 years before Ruth heard from him again.

After a year cooking for the Catholic Archbishop in Wellington, Ruth Shaw stepped over the horizon, seeking comfort for the loss of her son, and disappearance of her fiancé, in the salt spray and adventure of the ocean.

Working as crew on the sailing ship Cutty Sark, Shaw began circling the Pacific.

In Tahiti, she was arrested for vagrancy, after setting up a card game for gamblers in the local market, to make money. (She’d been taught cards and how to gamble, as a six-year-old, by her grandmother, and resorted to it whenever she was broke.)

She met her first husband, Peter, in Samoa, and they shifted to Brisbane, with Shaw pregnant and penniless.

Shaw took clothes from neighbourhood washing lines at night, to have something to wear to a job interview, returning them the next evening, with an explanatory apology note tucked into the pocket.

But just months into their new life, Peter was killed in a car accident, while working as a journalist.

On October 13, 1970, Shaw gave birth to their son, Joshua.

He lived for just 13 hours.

A severe blood condition saw him baptised and buried on the same day, a plain wooden cross marking his grave, his death certificate all Shaw was left with.

She fled to Papua New Guinea, and worked as a chef, while moonlighting as a penciller for an illegal bookie.

She sailed a small yacht to Singapore, got boarded by armed pirates in the Java Sea, and robbed in Jakarta.

She used adventure as a remedy for regret and sadness.

“I feared nothing. The worst that could happen was that I would die.”

She worked as an assistant to an orthopaedic surgeon back in Papua New Guinea, opened a successful café, married a wonderful man called Matt.

And then she ran away.

Starting to drown in doubt and depression, she packed up her world into four tea-chests and walked out.

She was 28, and running had become her default response.

Constantly moving forward, trying to outrun the past.

But she did go back, back to Joshua’s grave.

On a day when rain had turned the Brisbane cemetery to a swamp, she knelt and pulled his cross with its small brass plaque, from the ground, clutching it close as she walked away.

It was the only tangible thing she had of her son, and she was still holding it tight when she was found collapsed on the roadside by a passerby.

Nursing unbearable grief for the sons she had lost, Shaw attempted suicide, and spent time in a Melbourne psychiatric hospital.

After more travelling, she married her third husband, Tony.

Shaw’s father gave her a pregnant white sow as a wedding present. She named it Howard, after him.

And with it, she started a free-range piggery, while Tony grew cannabis on their rural New South Wales property.

The dope cookies did nothing to calm Tony, and after a few years, his violent outbursts caused Shaw to pack up once more and leave.

She bought a 30’ yacht called Magic, and sailed Australia’s east coast for six months with her dog and cat.

Then she travelled to Tasmania to protest against the Franklin Dam hydro project, which sparked a life of environmental action.

Next came a spell working with Sydney City Mission’s crisis centre, helping sex workers and drug addicts in Kings Cross, making friends with the street workers and enemies with the police.

What she learnt about police corruption, and detectives like Roger Rogerson (later convicted of murder) led Shaw to flee Sydney, fearing for her life.

So in 1984 she arrived back in New Zealand, 15 years after she had sailed away.

On her second day back, while staying with her father in Christchurch, Shaw got a phone call.

“Hi. I don’t think you’ll recognise my voice,” the man said.

“Just one question before I go any further,” he continued. “Are you still a Catholic?”

It was Lance.

“How about I come and pick you up? I can be there in eight hours,” Lance said, estimating the time to drive from his home in Manapōuri, where he was skippering a Department of Conservation boat.

And there he was, eight hours later, 17 years since she’d last seen him.

By the time they got to Ōmārama on their way back south, they were hugging on the side of the street, Ruth finally feeling her life of running away from things, might be over.

Lance had kept the ring he was meant to wear at their wedding, till it was ripped off by a mooring line while he was working on a coastal trader in Bougainville.

Ruth had kept hers too, in a small box she carried everywhere, as her life lurched across the world.

Her possessions soon followed her home, the tea chests, and Joshua’s cross that she’d wrenched from the cemetery soil.

They gained permission to put the cross in Te Ānau’s cemetery, with a new plaque (“Joshua, 13 hours old, finally at rest”), and planted a red beech beside it.

The tree is now 30m tall.

Ruth got her commercial skipper’s tickets and drove tourist boats across Lake Manapōuri.

And in 1995, she and Lance began an environmental charter boat business, running a 65’ motorsailer, Breaksea Girl, around Fiordland.

There was no fishing allowed, and a percentage of their profits went to environmental research.

And it was as part of this business that Ruth began her first bookshop, selling titles associated with the region and conservation.

Books had always been special to her.

As a child, she remembers cradling a large, ancient volume, and stroking it, because she loved it so much.

During her most troubled times, libraries provided sanctuary.

And when she returned to New Zealand, her tea chests were largely full of books.

So, a few years after they’d sold Breaksea Girl and their business, it was of little surprise when Ruth told Lance she wanted to set up a bookshop next to their home.

In 2016, aged 70, she watched as a tiny cabin was trucked onto their section in Manapōuri, ready to be stocked with over 1000 secondhand books.

She usually only opens from Labour Day to Easter, winter’s days being short, and tourist numbers likewise.

But even if the shop is closed, visitors just ring the bell they kept from Breaksea Girl, and Ruth will come over from their house.

When it’s busy, Ruth sits outside to let one or two more booklovers squeeze in. And if there’s still an overflow, she sends people next door, where Lance makes them a hot drink until there’s room in the bookshop.

She gives away lots of books, and gives the proceeds of others to charity.

And she refuses to sell books to people she doesn’t think appreciate them – like the woman who picked out a pile all with green spines to fit her home’s new colour scheme. Ruth told her books were for reading, not decorating.

Occasionally, she discovers notes in old books, tucked between the pages, which hint at the previous owners’ lives.

In 2019, Ruth decided she had to add another bookshop – one just for children, where they could stretch out while they read, and borrow books if they liked.

Snuggled among the books on the shelves are soft toys that children can take home for the night, their names chosen by the first child who borrowed them.

When they’re returned, they’re washed and hung on the line, pegged by their ears and tails.

Not long after opening the children’s bookshop, Ruth broke the news to Lance that she needed a third bookshop – one for men.

Often she would notice husbands sitting in their car while their wives searched for a book, or impatiently hustling their wives along in the shop.

So Ruth converted an old linen closet into what she calls The Snug, and tucked it under a lacebark that flowers in spring on the corner of their property. Then she filled it with books men might like, as well as maps, and built a seat for them to relax and read on.

“It’s a hobby that’s turned into my lifestyle,” Ruth says. “I just love the people, and I love the interaction.”

Their house is almost an annexe of the bookshop.

“You won’t see a wall anywhere that doesn’t have a bookshelf on it,” says Lance.

“Quite a few years ago, Lance said he wasn’t going to build me any more bookshelves,” recalls Ruth.

“So he said if I brought a book in, I had to take a book out. But that didn’t really work.”

Sometimes it does, though.

Sometimes she’ll be talking to a visitor in the shop, and think that a book on her home shelf would be ideal for them, so pops next door to fetch it and give it to them.

“The joy of giving away the perfect book is far more rewarding, and gives me so much more joy, than making a sale.”

It’s now 38 years since Ruth met Lance again, and came to live in Manapōuri.

Almost half her life.

The first half had been chaotic, full of hurtling and hurt.

But Manapōuri, surrounded by mountains and water and bush, has soothed her. Books have provided a haven. And Lance has saved her life, Ruth says.

Without his love and endless support, she wouldn’t have made it. (They finally married in 2011.)

And there’s one other thing that’s quelled the tumult – finding the son she had to give up for adoption, after the rape.

That relied on detective work and devotion, but getting to know him, and her grandson, have brought immeasurable joy.

So much of her life had remained hidden until she began writing about it. There were things even Lance didn’t know.

But putting it all down, while emotionally gruelling at times, has helped her come to terms with events, helped find an equilibrium that’s often been elusive.

Lance likens his wife’s life to a pinball machine, but believes it’s also incredibly inspiring.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of women who wish they’d done stuff. Not necessarily the same things as Ruth, but when they’ve come to a crossroad, they’ve always gone the safe way.

“So at the end of their life, they’re looking back, and reading Ruth’s book, and thinking, ‘What if I’d done that? What if I’d done even one or two of these things?’”

“There’s going to be some women that are going to be horrified,” notes Ruth.

“Especially some women who know me through the bookshop and think I’m this innocent little book reader.

“So I think there could be some negative comeback, but that’s fine by me.

“They’ve just got to accept it. That’s just the way it is.”

The Bookseller at the End of the World, by Ruth Shaw (Allen & Unwin, hardback, $36.99), is published on April 5.

The Bookseller at the End of the World, by Ruth Shaw, tells the story of her dramatic life, and the three tiny bookshops she runs in Manapōuri.

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