23 January 2024

Knitting Yourself Together

Mano Whenua. Heartland.

writer: Felicity connell
photographer: Francine Boer

The small Southland township of Manapōuri – population around 200 – has an unusual claim to fame: it has possibly the most bookshops per capita in Aotearoa, thanks to Ruth Shaw and her husband, Lance. However, following the publication of her memoir, The Bookseller at the End of the World, it’s Ruth and her incredible life who has become the main draw.

Book shop in Manapouri

One of Ruth’s Two Wee Bookshops. “Every single day something interesting happens in the bookshop. I always come running in and say to Lance, ‘You won’t believe what’s just happened,’” Ruth says.

With their brightly painted exteriors and eclectic mix of books and knick-knacks, you can’t miss Ruth’s Two Wee Bookshops and The Snug. “I won’t let Lance use the word ‘famous’ because I’m not famous – I’m well-known,” Ruth laughs. “I’ve now got bus tours booking in, with forty people turning up at a time, which is absolutely crazy. The bookshops only fit five people at a time. We’ve had to put up a marquee so people have somewhere to wait.”

“I can’t see myself living in a sterile house. Our house is always jam-packed full. An elderly friend whose small house is total chaos has a sign that says, ‘Boring woman have tidy houses’ – I can relate to that!”
“I can’t see myself living in a sterile house. Our house is always jam-packed full. An elderly friend whose small house is total chaos has a sign that says, ‘Boring woman have tidy houses’ – I can relate to that!”

At 77, Ruth acts – and feels – decades younger. Never one to be defined by convention, she has led a remarkable life, full of adventure and trauma, loss and incredible love. Trained as a nurse, she’s been a cook, an ocean-going sailor, a pig-farmer, a social worker for sex workers and drug addicts in Sydney’s Kings Cross, and a Fiordland charter boat operator. For Ruth, there’s no room for what ifs – she has always been focused on what’s next.

Her quiet self-belief stems from her loving, but somewhat unconventional, childhood. Her father was an early entrepreneur, and the family was involved in his various ventures. He instilled in Ruth the belief that she could do anything, including getting herself out of difficult situations. “Dad always told me, ‘If you ever run out of money, you only have to look as far as your backyard, and you'll find something you can do.’ And he was right. If something did go wrong, he would get cross, and then he’d say, ‘Well, just learn from it, Ruth.’”

Ruth hard at work in her wee office. “Lance says that the most important thing about the book is that it is so important to the readers. For some, it has been life-changing and life-affirming. And you don’t need another reason to write a book.”

Her memoir covers some confronting topics, including rape, the forced adoption of her first son, the death of her second son, domestic violence and her struggles with mental health. “I actually thought that there was already a lot written about that kind of trauma, and I didn’t think that the reaction would be so immense. I have boxes full of handwritten letters from elderly woman who have never spoken about what happened to them, because it was all so secretive. Their letters bring me to tears. I’ve also had men tell me that reading the book has helped them better understand what the women in their lives have been through,” Ruth says.

“When I was writing the book, I thought that people would think, ‘What a bloody mess this woman is! When is she going to wake up and stop being such a drama queen?’ And that’s when the idea came of alternating the bookshop stories with my life story, for my reader’s mental health, and for mine too.”

Ruth says she didn’t write the book for money or notoriety. “I wrote it because Lance kept on saying, ‘You’ve got to write it, Ruth.’ I said, ‘Well, if I write it, it’s going to be everything. There’s going to be no secrets.’ That honesty was hard, because my family didn’t know about a lot of what went on. But I just get so much joy from the people that come and hug me and thank me. I end up crying every day. I’ve got a big box of tissues in the bookshop now, and Lance will come and say, ‘Love, you’re sitting here crying!’”

 Ruth spent the winter stocking up on books. “By February last year I was running so low on books, my shelves were empty. I’ve had the most amazing winter buying books, and I’ve got masses for the coming season.”
Ruth spent the winter stocking up on books. “By February last year I was running so low on books, my shelves were empty. I’ve had the most amazing winter buying books, and I’ve got masses for the coming season.”

At the heart of the book is Ruth and Lance’s love story. They first met on Stewart Island in the early sixties. Lance was the best-looking guy on the island, according to Ruth. Ruth’s family were Catholic, and although Lance was prepared to convert for Ruth’s sake, the Church’s insistence that any children they had would have to be brought up in the Catholic faith went against his strongly held principles, and their engagement was called off. Both left the island, heartbroken.

In the mid-eighties, they reconnected in a typical New Zealand one-degree-of-separation story. After years of travelling around the Pacific and Australia, Ruth returned home to nurse her sister, Jill. Sharing a hospital ward with Jill was a friend of Lance’s. The two women made the connection and put Lance in touch with Ruth. He drove eight hours to see her again. “I knew as soon as I saw him that the love was still there,” Ruth says.

“Our home is surrounded by birds and birdsong – we feed hundreds of birds every day,” Ruth says. “Over the years I’ve fought to protect the environment. Our forest is a gift to the community.”

Nearly forty years later, they’ve now been together twice as long as they were apart. It hasn’t all been plain sailing. “Lance had a very rough experience with his previous marriage – his wife left him abruptly without an explanation. He knew things weren’t quite right with the marriage, but he didn’t know how to fix it,” Ruth explains. “A Dutch friend told me that their colloquial phrase for someone who has been in a previous relationship or divorced is ‘a licked-off sandwich.’ When we reconnected, I was a licked-off sandwich, and Lance was too! We thought that the love we had for each other would give us both everything we wanted. Even with that strong love, the first few years were very tough. But we knitted back together. We’re so different in many ways, but we now trust that our relationship is going to last. We sing the same songs and finish each other sentences.”

Manapōuri, too, has grown on her. “I didn’t know if I would be able to live in Manapōuri at first. I thought it would be too small and too conservative. I was surprised at how I settled. I absolutely love the nature and the peace here, and how every day the mountains and the lake are different. I love that I can just walk a hundred steps across the road and every time I see the lake, I’m grounded. I could not live without the bush and the birds now,” Ruth says.

Keepsakes from the couple’s tourism charter boat, Breaksea Girl, are scattered all around the house and bookshops. Lance skippered the ketch back when it was a Department of Conservation boat, used as part of a project in the eighties to make Breaksea Island one of the first places rat-free in the world.
Keepsakes from the couple’s tourism charter boat, Breaksea Girl, are scattered all around the house and bookshops. Lance skippered the ketch back when it was a Department of Conservation boat, used as part of a project in the eighties to make Breaksea Island one of the first places rat-free in the world.
Mementos from a lifetime of adventures
Mementos from a lifetime of adventures
 “Lance makes masses of teas and coffees. And since the book came out, if he’s not in the bookshop with me, women always ask, ‘Is lovely Lance here?’”
“Lance makes masses of teas and coffees. And since the book came out, if he’s not in the bookshop with me, women always ask, ‘Is lovely Lance here?’”
Ruth continues to read widely, constantly adding to her personal library. “My favourite new book is A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees by Dave Goulson. Anyone interested in farming or gardening should read it. It’s about the introduction of bumblebees to New Zealand – it’s just an incredible story.”
Ruth continues to read widely, constantly adding to her personal library. “My favourite new book is A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees by Dave Goulson. Anyone interested in farming or gardening should read it. It’s about the introduction of bumblebees to New Zealand – it’s just an incredible story.”

Hannah worked her way up to head shepherd from shearing. “One day I was working out the back of the woolshed and we had a shearer not turn up. I offered to jump on a stand as Dad had taught me the basic ‘blows’ of shearing. From that day I was offered a job as a woolhandler, slowly working my way up to getting my own stand.”

“People ask me to write something in their copy of the book. Often, they tell me they have been through a hard time and at long last they’ve come out the other side. I write this for them: ‘In all of our lives we struggle. We stumble across rocks and stones and then suddenly our feet sink into soft, warm sand. And we know then that we’ve survived, and we’ve found courage. Sometimes we never think we have courage, but if we get bashed around enough and we can stand up and get bashed around and stand up, we know then that we’ve got courage, and we know that we can survive. And we know that we’re going to feel that soft, beautiful sand, and that is when we can get joy out of the small things.’”

Ruth’s newest book, Bookshop Dogs, is out now from Allen & Unwin. Ruth will be our Social Club guest this January! Join us for the conversation - and a chance to ask questions - on Tuesday 30 January at 8pm. Subscribe to Social Club to recieve the meeting details.

“For me, Manapōuri is a place of solace and exquisite beauty in many ways, and on many, many levels,” Ruth says.

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