After lunch at her Mexican restaurant, Marianne dropped me off at the train station at Paekakariki. I had an hour to kill before the train for Paraparaumu arrived, so I wandered around the tiny town’s Main Street, which took me all of ten minutes.
I walked over to the railway station, which while unassuming, consisting of a few wooden shacks on a 1/3 of a city block, is important to the city’s history.
In 1886 the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company’s line from Wellington to Longburn was completed, and Paekakariki became an important stop on the journey. In 1908, the line was incorporated into the national network of the New Zealand Railways Department and became part of the North Island Main Trunk linking Wellington and Auckland, the North Island’s most important line.
During World War 2, Paekakariki also served as a major base for US Marines fighting in the Pacific, with over 20,000 Americans stationed here.
Paekakariki’s steep surrounding hills proved suitable terrain for marching and mortar practice, whilst its beaches were used to stage amphibian invasions. They were the scene of an unfortunate tragedy in June 1943 when a landing craft was swamped by a wave during a nighttime training exercise. Nine men drowned in the heavy surf according to official figures; local rumor put the toll higher. The incident was never reported at the time due to wartime censorship provisions.
I was reading about Paekakariki’s history on my iPhone, biding my time, when I noticed an open door in one of the side buildings. I shyly walked over and looked into what seemed to be a dusty old used bookstore jam-filled with literature. The location seemed so bizarre and incongruous. While I can understand a Barnes and Noble at Grand Central Station, how could this used bookstore do any sort of business in the middle of nowhere, hidden in Paekakariki, population 1600, a town name which in Māori means “perching place of the kakariki (green parrot).”
Inside the bookstore, a man in his sixties, a Bohemian with long white hair, was standing on a ladder, struggling to hang a framed photo on the wall.
“Good. You’re tall,” he said. “You can help me.”
“Sure,” I said, and entered the shop. I climbed onto the ladder and tried to match up the wired back of the frame with the nail on the wall.
“A little to the right,” he directed me. “To the left. Perfect.”
I climbed off the ladder and he pointed at the sepia-toned photo. It was of some waterfall. He told me it was an original photo taken by some famous New Zealand naturalist, the Ansel Adams of the country.
“Are you looking for a specific book today?” he asked, changing the subject.
“To tell you the truth, I’m just stumbling by. I was waiting for the train when I saw you were open. I was surprised to find such a cool bookstore in the middle of the train station.”
“Grand, isn’t it? Where are you from?”
“From the States. I was born in New York.”
“That’s one place I want to visit one day. You liking New Zealand?”
There was a spark in his voice. Many Kiwis seemed quite reserved, but the bookstore owner seemed impish and playful.
“It’s beautiful in New Zealand,” I answered.
“Listen, as a thank-you for hanging up my photo, I’m going to give you one of my books. What do you prefer? Fiction or poetry?”
Before I could answer, he had analyzed me.
“You seem like a fiction person. I’ll give you one of my novels.”
He grabbed one of his own books from a shelf. It was titled Unlevel Crossings. I learned more about my new acquaintance. His name was Michael O’Leary.
Michael O’Leary is a New Zealand publisher, poet, novelist, performer, and bookshop proprietor. He publishes under the imprint Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop, which he founded in 1984. He runs a bookshop, Kakariki Books, from the Paekakariki Railway Station.
Born in Auckland, he was educated at the Universities of Auckland and Otago. He wrote his master’s thesis on the history of small presses in New Zealand. He is the author of Alternative Small Press Publishing in New Zealand. He completed a PhD in women’s studies at Victoria University of Wellington on the ‘Social and Literary Constraints on Women Writers in New Zealand 1945 to 1970’.
O’Leary’s novels and poetry explore his Māori (Te Arawa)– Irish Catholic heritage. Under the Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop imprint he has published work by a range of writers, both alternative and mainstream, including: Raewyn Alexander, Colin Lloyd Amery, Sandra Bell, John Pule, Greg O’Brien, David Eggleton, and others.
O’Leary is a trustee for the Poetry Archive of New Zealand Aotearoa, a charitable trust dedicated to archiving, collecting and promoting New Zealand poetry.
“Thank you for the book,” I told the writer/publisher/bookstore owner. “I’ll read it on the plane home.”
The warning bell of the approaching train rang at the train crossing.
“What’s your name?” he asked, the clang of the metal wheels of the train from Wellington growing louder.
“Nice meeting you Neil. And what brings you to New Zealand in the first place? A woman?”
“How did you know?”
“It’s always a woman.”
I said goodbye. I rode the train back to Paraparaumu. Juli picked me up and I took this photo of her for Instagram.