Real Life

Bookseller’s rip-roaring adventures

Wee Bookshop owner Ruth Shaw has led a wild, novel-worthy life!

By Emma Clifton
When Ruth Shaw started her first Wee Bookshop out the back of her and husband Lance's home in Manapouri, it was only supposed to be a retirement hobby.
Both in their 70s, she and Lance had very different ideas of what retirement was supposed to look like. Within weeks, it was clear that this hobby was going to be more like a full-time job. Now aged 75, Ruth has just released her first book, a memoir titled The Bookseller at the End of the World.
The first Wee Bookshop was small enough to sit on their property without requiring a building permit, and the gypsy-caravan look of it – plus the great selection of books – made it a hotspot for tourists and locals alike. Manapouri sits on the edge of Fiordland and it's beautiful in its own right.
Now, a charming and colourful adult bookshop, children's bookshop and "a snug" sit on the property, receiving a constant flow of visitors from spring to autumn each year.
The shop bell is taken from Breaksea Girl, the boat Ruth and Lance used to run tours on, and it's rung frequently by eager book buyers when they arrive in the shop.
Ruth and/or Lance, who have been together 30 years and married for 11, are always ready to come out, offer a book recommendation, some wisdom and maybe a cup of tea or two.
As you would imagine, these wee bookshops attract a clientele that's as colourful as they are – and funny little snapshots of their customers are interspersed throughout Ruth's Bookseller memoir. But if you're expecting a mild-mannered book about, well, books, you'd be wrong.
At home on the sea with her beloved dog Jericho
"I suppose I was at the age where I didn't care what people thought about me any more," Ruth says of writing a memoir at 75. "Maybe 30 years ago, I think a lot of people were judging me way back then – and they would have had more reason to judge me. But I don't care now. It's one of the really good things about old age!"
Lance had often told Ruth she should write a book, but it was a suggestion she had mostly shrugged off. She had written short stories, but the idea of doing a whole book never seemed that important. After all, Ruth always said, "Who doesn't have a book in them?"
But it was after a reporter came across her bookshops and wrote about them that Ruth's fascinating life story made its way to RNZ broadcaster Kim Hill and in her subsequent Saturday Morning interview, it turned out Ruth's life story involved multiple marriages, pirates, arrests and having to go into hiding from drug dealers in Sydney's notorious Kings Cross. Unsurprisingly, Ruth got a book deal and two years later The Bookseller at the End of the World is now sitting pride of place in the wee bookshops themselves.
Marrying Lance in 2011
Described as "a fascinating, funny and moving story", the memoir is a rollicking ride at times, but it's also a story of living through tragedy.
Ruth was sexually assaulted as a teenager and gave birth to a son following the rape, who was then adopted out (they would be reunited almost 20 years later).
This attack led to two decades of subsequent trauma as a young Ruth sought to process what had happened to her. But it also resulted in a lifetime of activism work, as she understood better than most that vulnerable people – and places – need to be protected.
Ruth has been a fierce protester for many decades, particularly when it comes to conserving the pristine nature of the Fiordland area. This was another part of her life where Ruth says it got easier as she got older.
'Think about bringing your children up, the hardships, the sacrifices'. Ruth's son Andrew, who she was reunited with when he was in his twenties
"When I was young and an activist, there was always a good chance you were going to get arrested. It was only once I turned 65 that I thought, 'They're going to think twice about arresting an old lady,'" she laughs. "How would that look now? 'A 75-year-old woman was arrested for protesting the chopping down of a tree!'
"Being retired gives you a whole lot of freedom because you can do and say things, and people say, 'Oh, it's only old age!'"
Ruth says she's always surprised by her age.
"I'm 76 in a couple of months and when you say it, 76 sounds really old. But your head's not there – your head's not 76! Your body is," she jokes. "Your body definitely gets there."
'They're going to think twice about arresting an old woman!'
From the age of 20, Ruth had kept a diary every time something memorable happened – both good and bad – and every time she was away at sea, which is how she spent a lot of her 20s.
She also kept other types of mementos – like the sketch she made of the Melbourne skyline from the window of the psychiatric institution she ended up in following a suicide attempt in 1975.
Because Ruth's life had been so traumatic for so long, writing a diary was a useful way to work through what was happening and it made the book-writing process easier, both because she had a snapshot of those life events but also because she had worked through a lot of them by this stage in her life. But the book is not only a record of the bad times, it's also a beautiful love story between Ruth and Lance.
They first met when Ruth was 19 and fell in love quickly, even though Ruth was still reeling from her assault two years earlier. But when their engagement ended, it would be 20 years until they would see each other again.
Celebrating sister Jill's 21st with their mum in 1965
In that time, Ruth was married three times, but each one ended in tragedy – her second husband Peter was killed just before Ruth was to give birth to their son Joshua, who tragically died the day after he was born.
This is one of the reasons Ruth wanted to write a book, she says, because she knows so many other people have endured such difficulties in their life.
"I kept on thinking of the women that would read this book, that felt they were totally lost because of something that had happened to them," she explains. "And especially women of my age, still carrying a lot of baggage and not knowing how to put it to one side. While you're carrying that baggage, it impacts everything you do."
Lance and Ruth would eventually reunite when Ruth was in her late 30s, and have been besotted ever since, eventually marrying in 2011. He was the first person who read each chapter as she wrote it, and even he was surprised and frequently saddened by what Ruth had endured. But as the author tells the many women's groups and book clubs she speaks to, sharing the stories of our lives is so important.
Onboard her sloop the Islander in the South China Sea in 1971
"When I've spoken to groups, they'll tell me, 'My life has been so boring,' but it hasn't. Think about your life – think about bringing your children up, the hardships, the sacrifices you had to make," she says. "It might not be a story that everybody wants to hear, but it's your story. And your family should know it – your family should know that you ate one potato instead of two or three because there weren't enough to go around.
"They need to know who stood up for you when you were in trouble and you were a kid. Just little things like that – and they should be proud of that.
"People only think their lives are boring because they haven't been around the world, but is it really boring to have only had one successful marriage in your life? I don't think so. I think that's amazing.
"I wish that men and women would see that going out every morning to look after their sheep, all that kind of stuff, is so precious. I don't want people to say that's boring. Everybody has a story – especially our age group because of the times we lived in."
Ruth's family and regular customers who have read her memoir loved it, which she says is very reassuring. Lance's son Dane even sending through a photo of himself holding the book in a Melbourne bookshop. Lance jokes to the Weekly that he has become Ruth's PA and she beams when she tells us, "He's my best bookseller!"
True to form, during our chat, Ruth has to pause to sign a copy of the book for a reader who's just turned up, eager to meet Ruth and buy her book. It's the perfect next chapter for a life so well lived, to become an author at 75.
  • undefined: Emma Clifton

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