+64 21 389 121


Life Lessons from the Best Book Store in the World

Unity Book Store, a small book shop on High Street in Auckland has won a huge prize, being named the International Book Store of the Year at the 2020 London Book Fair.  It has been running for 31 years.  It’s small, with books packed to the ceiling and stacked on carefully curated piles on tables and ledges. 

When Jo McColl was asked what made Unity Books work, she said that what was amazing is that they have survived through the challenges of the likes of Amazon and Book Depository, and that whilst there used to be 10 book shops in their vicinity in downtown Auckland, now, apart from Whitcoulls and a specialist second-hand book store, they have all disappeared.  What made Unity Books survive and prosper – she said, was complete self-belief.

They never doubted themselves or thought they would fail.  They also had a very strong customer focus from the start, which other shops didn’t have. In other words, they catered for their customers’ needs. Unity Books manages to pack into its small four walls a varied and eclectic selection of books not seen anywhere else. 

This takes a passion for reading and learning and a staff who are engaged and enthusiastic about what they do.  

What makes Unity Books special and can their winning formula be replicated in other businesses and professions? I think it can. Having been a customer for many years, I believe that in addition to unwavering self-belief and a strong customer focus, their success can be put down to a number of other factors:

  • Maintenance of positive and strong values;
  • Powerful branding “What’s in Unity Books? – Something that Sings”;
  • Sticking to what they are good at;
  • A strong commitment to quality, in terms of people and product;
  • Well-qualified, engaged and enthusiastic staff, all of whom are avid readers and keen to help;
  • A genuine love of books and reading which imbues everything they do;
  • A diverse, inviting and regularly updated shop window; and
  • A great selection of books in a well-stocked store.

These values and attributes are not limited to any particular trade, profession or calling. Positive values, engagement and enthusiasm are what so often differentiate successful endeavours from less successful ones. There is no substitute for getting professional advice from someone who knows their stuff and loves what they are doing. Unity Books is a quality store they emphasise quality and professionalism, not price.

I remember purchasing a book from a small bookstore in Noosa some years ago.  I had a pile of books but couldn’t decide which one to buy. None of them really grabbed me.  I asked the staff member behind the counter for some help. She didn’t try and convince me to buy any of the books I had in my pile, but instead quizzed me on what I liked. She then picked up something completely different. I wasn’t completely sold and asked her for a bit more of a steer. She did so. I was still not entirely convinced. I then enquired how good it was on a scale of one to 10.  She smiled and told me “It’s the best book I’ve ever read”.  I said that on that basis I had no choice but to buy it, which I did.  The recommendation was an excellent one. That is what a good bookstore does.

Jo McColl is no different. Reading is in her blood. In an interview with the Herald, she said that during the COVID-19 self-isolation it’s a great time to pick up a book.  She can’t help herself and recommends ‘The Mirror and The Light’ by Hilary Mantell, which she describes as “just absolutely unbelievable” – that’s almost in the ‘best book I ever read’ category, and I’ll be getting it.

Which brings me back to the Unity Books and its recipe for success: specialist knowledge, passion and as the Unity Books window puts it “Something that Seduces and Excites”.  As bookshops continue to close down, we see a worldwide trend against learning, science and facts. We need to celebrate this success and support bookshops like this.

Susannah Andrew of Unity Books told the Herald, they are a “sanctuary of ideas”. We need more sanctuaries like this, to foster knowledge, freedom of thought and something that seems to be in short supply these days, unvarnished facts.


Clive Elliott-Barrister

I live and work in Auckland, New Zealand. I am a frequent writer and commentator on intellectual property and information technology issues. I am a barrister, patent attorney, and arbitrator. Before going to the Bar in 2000, I was a partner and headed the litigation team at Baldwin Shelston Waters/Baldwins. I took silk in 2013. Feel free to contact me via phone, email or social media.