Welcome to my world of writing and hospitality
When Ken sent an email inquiry, he described himself as ‘a booklover who will be travelling with his well-worn copy of Herodotus’. He was not able to confirm the booking, so I said I would book him in and he could cancel later, with no penalty.
He emailed back: ‘During his travels Herodotus relied upon the institution of the “proxenos” – the guest’s friend – and I think you qualify for that ancient and worthy description.”
Ken recommended Ryszarghtd Kapuscinski’s Travels with Herodotus. So I went to Unity Books to buy one. Ken wrote of the now-deceased Polish foreign correspondent, “Kapuscinski was such an elegant and perceptive writer, with the heart of a poet.”
Had I not named my bed and breakfast inn Booklovers B&B, I would not have hosted philosopher Alain de Botton – who only arrived to have an afternoon rest on his book tour. Crime writer Mark Billingham, Lindy Woodhead, author of War Paint, about Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein, and Bloomsbury Publishing co-founder Liz Calder probably would not have stayed either.
I bought 123 Pirie Street in 1999, while looking for a way to make a living while writing. By that time, I had written an award-winning biography of Ettie Rout and three interview books: Convent Girls (a bestseller at 12,500 copies), Sixties Chicks, and In the Shadow of War, with Nicholas Boyack, from our World War I Oral History Archive (all published by Penguin Books). Books take a long time and research is expensive. But if you go to work, there is little time to write.
I started out on newspapers, winning the Dulux News Award and then worked in magazines, gaining the Cowan Prize for Historical Journalism. I had taught journalism at Wellington Polytechnic and was working as a producer at Radio New Zealand when this house came up for sale. Gareth the technician told me about it as it was across the road from his flat. I already knew the house.
I phoned and left a message for the agent. He said I had to see it that night as someone was putting in an offer. It was mid-winter and dark; I did not go out the back. It was full of single beds with candlewick bedspreads, and had several little old kitchens dotted about, from when young women had lived there – each with their own kitchen but sharing one bathroom.
There was no gib-board/sheet rock. When the wind blew, the scrim and wallpaper billowed out from the sarking. In the hall there was pink-painted hardboard. After I bought it, Ginette McDonald and Tim O’Brien started pulling it off one night – which is how I found there was tongue-and-groove beneath. The Victorian doors were covered with hardboard, as was the balustrading on the stairs.
I thought I would know in the morning if my heart was in it, but woke up unable to tell – so I made an offer anyway. The agent brought Thelma, 94, to see me. I asked her when she had moved into the house. She said 1957. I said that was the year I was born – and that serendipity sealed it.
The original plans for the house are dated 1894. Three identical houses were built side by side. In 1904, the tram tunnel was put through to Hataitai. Today the No 2 bus takes you to the airport for $5 – and to Karori the other way, via Courtenay Place and Lambton Quay; I once had a job there and it was literally door to door.
The house left of centre is like Booklovers, which is hidden by the house in the right foreground.
I did a big renovation but nearly lost my shirt! Then I fell into the black hole of running a small business. Leigh Anne, the accountant, sorted me out. I learnt to take responsibility. I went back to work – writing speeches, interviewing on a commission of inquiry, producing pieces for the online encyclopaedia, Te Ara, doing a book with adult survivors of childhood abuse.
For the World War I centenary, I organised extracts from the oral history into An Awfully Big Adventure (Penguin, 2013) and did an e-book, Kiwi Teens on the Western Front, featuring three of the youngest veterans. I turned the amazing but overlooked experiences of New Zealand women who worked overseas in the war into Make Her Praises Heard Afar. For Suffrage 2018, I did But I Changed All That: ‘first’ New Zealand women, from Kate Sheppard to Jacinda Ardern. I published the last two myself. Today I am re-spinning the story of women’s suffrage, hoping to get it out next year.
When Covid-19 happened, I escorted by last guest to the door the day of the night we locked down, and thought I would ‘show willing’ by cleaning out the cupboard under the stairs. After 20 years, suddenly my little business came to a stop. I have ‘pivoted’, as the Government advised, tilting pricing towards groups of family and friends. I am on hand, but for those who want the house to themselves, I am happy to leave you to it.
My guests were fabulously helpful: the German couple who bought me flowers and a card telling me to keep going; the British couple whose friend was the expert on women who worked in munitions factories; designer Peter Dyson, of Melbourne, who asked me a series of questions and ended up designing the book; and Caroline Fitzgerald, who mentioned at breakfast that her mother had a painting….which went on the cover.
For the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand, I did a small book on New Zealand women who were ‘firsts’ between 1893 and 2018 – from Kate Sheppard to Jacinda Ardern. The title, But I Changed All That, came from Dinah Lee, the first New Zealander to have a number one hit record overseas. This and Make Her Praises can be ordered on my website: https://janetolerton.co.nz/books/.
In 2001, there were at least a dozen upmarket B&Bs in the inner suburbs of Wellington. Today, Booklovers may be the only one that operates as a traditional B&B and serves freshly-made bacon and eggs at breakfast (as well as fresh fruit salad!) B&B owners seem to last about six years in New Zealand, but I need to keep going if I want to keep writing and publishing.
The next challenge is to use the empty winters to provide a congenial space for writers. Having been to writers’ residencies myself – Arteles Creative Center in Finland and Studio Faire in France – I want to run one where artistic people (who do not need studio space) can spend a week to two months. The one-week minimum is aimed at New Zealanders who want to use the National Library and Archives New Zealand but can’t be away too long. In its first year, 2019, the residency was run by Amber Hamron, a writer from Texas. She also hosted regular B&B visitors. The house will run with that mixture in 2020, but we expect to build up to residency-only guests by 2021.
Welcome to my house. I (try to) delegate breakfasts and cleaning, but I am usually here, and happy to share my history, writing and hospitality knowledge with guests.
Jane Tolerton, FRHistS, ONZM.