I love everything about shops. I love the rows of tattered newspaper billboards outside dairies; tables loaded with cheap remaindered novels outside bookstores; the way the needle bursts into life when you step onto scales on the floor of pharmacies; the anxious, harried, imprisoned faces of shop keepers - shops are the theatres of everyday New Zealand life, public spaces stocked with junk and necessities and luxuries, always a welcome sight when you’ve been driving through plain or desert or valley and not seen a single soul for ages.
But most of all I love the backs of shops. That dusty, hidden strip behind shops, with weeds and cardboard boxes and a chair or two for the shop staff to rest for a while in the sun. They’re private spaces, they’re backstage. They’re hidden, they’re out of sight. The front of shops is all about business, about keeping up appearances; the backs of shops is all about the stuff that gets thrown out, about relaxing with a cup of tea and a newspaper.
I was always drawn to the backs of the shops in Central Parade in Mt Maunganui. I grew up in that cheerful, sunny town, and I was never happier than lurking in the quiet shadowland behind the Central Parade shops. There was something mysterious about it, something deeply appealing in the loose arrangement of ordinary things – a teatowel drying on a line, choko plants strangling a wire fence, a saucer full of cigarette butts.
That fascination stayed with me ever since, and as a journalist sent on assignment all around New Zealand, I would constantly take time out to wander behind blocks of shops in small towns. A kind of poetry moved in the silence. It’s there in the narrow space between the backs of shops and the river, in Huntly; it’s there in the hard, dry ground behind the shops in Fairlie. It’s in the suburbs, too – there’s a dirt path next to a dairy in Mt Roskill, in Auckland, that leads behind the shops to an oak tree presiding over a concealed nature wonderland.
Two years ago I finally decided to do something about this lifelong fascination - I wanted to commit it to paper. I got in touch with Peter Black, a Wellington photographer who has taken beautiful, haunting photographs of the outskirts of towns, and asked what he thought about the backs of shops; whether he, too, recognised their quiet lyrical power. Yes, he replied, he most certainly did recognise that, and he began sending photographs – he put everything I thought and felt into pictures.
We worked on the project throughout 2015, and in November 2016, I published my latest book The Shops, which features my 60,000-word essay and 44 colour photographs by Peter Black. I’m really proud of it. I think it captures a sadness and a beauty and a quintessence of New Zealand life. Peter is a great colourist, and his photographs are sometimes wonderful riots of reds and yellows; he also appreciates handmade signs, and the way things look in flat, broad, exposing daylight. The essay is a kind of memoir, about growing up in Mt Maunganui. It’s also about my family, especially my mum. I dedicated the book to her. She spent a lot of time shopping at Central Parade.
The Shops (Luncheon Sausage Books, $40) by Steve Braunias and Peter Black is available at bookstores nationwide. All images reproduced with permission.