With Whitcoulls celebrating their 130th birthday at the moment, I figured it was about time I take a closer look at this Christchurch-founded New Zealand icon! Rather late really as my first ever job was at the Bishopdale branch back in 1994. It was a dream come true as it was my favourite shop in the world! I LOVE BOOKS!!!! I actually burst into tears when I got my name badge, sad but true.
I knew that the store on Cashel Street had been around forever and had once been called Whitcombe and Tombs. As staff I had attended meetings at Cashel Street, heading to the second storey. There over the staircase was an old B + W photo of the building back in its Hey Day. My step would slow as I lapsed into an all consuming stare… I was always the last into the meetings.
George Hawkes Whitcombe arrived in New Plymouth in 1870 as a 16 year old. His older brother Charles had already set up a life there, so George was entered into his care. Being French, George made a career of teaching the language – but there are no clues of what brought him down to Christchurch. He became a bookseller and publisher. After a few failed mergers with others in his field, he joined with George Tombs, a printer and book binder who already had a shop set up in Cashel Street. The year was 1883.
Whitcombe and Tombs became an instant success. A printery with a retail shop, the two of them printed stationery and leaflets as well as produced their own diaries, textbooks and children’s stories. The pair worked well together. At that time, their neighbour in Cashel Street was another Christchurch icon, ‘The Press’ who would remain there until their move to Cathedral Square in 1909.
Whitcombe became well known as a hard going business man, out-maneuvering all up-coming competitors and faced off with the unions without fear. As Whitcombe and Tombs began to expand across not only New Zealand but also Australia (first store being in Melbourne), Whitcombe had the hindsight to open the new stores on the main street in the country’s main cities.
Both George’s eventually retired and the business was passed down to their sons. Many ended up as managers of the stores all over the country after, of course, fulfilling their apprenticeship time in the printeries. By 1917, the Whitcombes’ and Tombs’ that were now holding the reins could enjoy that the company was the largest educational publishers in the southern hemisphere. It was the same year that George passed away and he is buried at Linwood Cemetery.
Sadly in 1971, a merger with Dunedin’s “Coulls, Somerville and Wilkie” ended the era of the printeries and book-making for the company. Now known as Whitcoulls, it would now only serve the public as a retail chain, selling other brands and no longer their own.
The company has ever since been re-sold and taken over again and again, facing closure a few times but finding itself rescued. Just before the 22nd February earthquake, it seemed that Whitcoulls was losing its last battle to remain in business. I personally was devastated, such an old company, it would have been like losing a piece of heritage.
We now know that the company was saved yet again but this failed to save the old Cashel Street building from the Boxing Day 2010 earthquakes. Already emptied of its stock and staff from the quakes in September, after Boxing Day, the grand old building was beyond help. It has since been demolished.
I sure hope to see that old photo again when Whitcoulls rebuilds in the Christchurch CBD. On the same site would be great, where the roots of this great Christchurch business were planted, with a handshake between two men who loved books as much as I do!
*image of Whitcombe and Tombs Label courtesy of http://www.sevenroads.org*
*image of Whitcombe and Tombs Cashel Street frontage courtesy of http://hotpj.co.nz*
*image of Whitecombe and Tombs Text Book courtesy of http://www.nzmuseums.co.nz*