Recent news that work should start next year on a five-star hotel in Garema Place, Civic, prompts memories of a notable Canberra institution, the Verity Hewitt bookshop. Upstairs in the Garema Centre - to be demolished to make way for the hotel - it closed its doors 50 years ago, in February 1969. An attempt to revive the business by moving to Queanbeyan failed.
Verity Hewitt's first saw the light of day on 1 April 1938, above Leo's Café in the Sydney Building, Civic. It was something new for Canberra - a town of fewer than 10,000 souls, but many of them hungry for a good bookshop. As ''a focal point for all book lovers'', it was a ''most valued part of Canberra living'', one early customer recalled years later. Another remembered the young proprietor Verity Hewitt as ''quick to perceive the particular leaning of each customer'', keeping them ''in touch with up-to-date information about new and relevant publications''.
From a Glen Innes farming family, Verity came to Canberra as a 21-year-old in 1930 to teach at Telopea Park School. She had graduated with honours in English and History from Sydney University, where she met her future husband Laurie Fitzhardinge, later well known as an ANU historian and founding president of the Canberra and District Historical Society.
In lengthy letters to Laurie from 1930 to 1933 - he was studying at Oxford - she wrote of her life in Canberra; she loved the place. We meet the Garrans and Tillyards, who made a point of welcoming newcomers to the capital, and Gough Whitlam, a star pupil at Telopea Park who was a bit of a tease. We read of her hiking and horse riding adventures around Canberra and in the Brindabellas. These letters are among her papers at the National Library.
Verity and Laurie married in August 1936, in Wellington, New Zealand, where she was working as a teacher. For her it had been an agonising decision; two months earlier she accepted the proposal of a young Englishman, George Lacey Lee, she had met on the Sydney to Wellington leg of a voyage to San Francisco in early 1935. She returned to New Zealand after her American trip, and the two engaged in an on-and-off and on-again romance. Lee was to die in action in World War II; Verity wrote a moving memoir of him in her old age (A Man's Man, Winchbooks, 1987).
Back in Canberra, where Laurie worked at the Parliamentary Library, Verity found herself in desperate need of something to occupy her mind and her days. Trunks of books Laurie had brought back from England - he contemplated starting a bookshop in Sydney - provided the answer. With a selection of current books acquired from Angus & Robertson's, they formed the foundation stock for Verity Hewitt's.
Verity threw herself into making the shop a success. An early advertisement in The Canberra Times listed ''Canberra books and photographs, Aboriginal weapons, fine and rare books, Japanese colour prints, Australiana, historical maps and prints'' as among items for sale. She staged art shows - an early one included Lionel Lindsay woodcuts - and in 1940 added a ''picture and reading room'' to the shop.
She also ran a lending library, and in March 1942 began a weekly service delivering library books by horse and sulky. The following year she transferred operations to more visible ground-floor premises, opposite the old Hotel Civic. This was the first of a number of moves.
Verity was always happy for customers to browse; as she once put it, ''if people do that all today, they will probably come back tomorrow, or some other day, and buy a book, or even a lot of books.'' She liked to recall a visit to the shop by the governor-general, Lord Gowrie, during which he was overheard describing it as ''the nicest little bookshop in Australia''.
Verity was hands-on manager up to July 1945, just weeks before World War II ended, when the family moved to Sydney where Laurie had a new job at the university. Her two sons had been born in the early 1940s, and she mourned the war deaths of a brother and Lacey Lee. Somehow in those stressful years she found time to begin studies that led to her becoming fluent in Russian.
A sister, June Hewitt, took charge for most of the next decade, then a series of managers looked after the business - including a Manuka shop opened in 1947 and closed in 1963. Verity severed her connection in 1951, selling her stake to Laurie, now at the ANU. Returning to her farming roots, she ran an apple orchard at Narrabundah and later a cattle stud on 16 hectares near Queanbeyan and a bush block south of Captains Flat.
She also taught again - at Canberra Grammar, Queanbeyan High, Canberra High and Captains Flat school - and returned to academic pursuits. Making use of her language skills in Soviet libraries, she completed an MA on Czarist Russian contacts with colonial Australia in 1964. Then she embarked on a PhD on 'The establishment of the North-West Frontier of Afghanistan, 1884-1888'. Fascinating letters home describing her solo travels there in 1966 have been published as A Nice Quiet Tourist: Letters from a journey to Afghanistan (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2017).
In 1968 she took on management of the bookshop again, hoping to prevent the struggling business that bore her name from falling into insolvency. Considering the rent demanded at the Garema Centre ''hopeless'', she moved operations to Queanbeyan, telling The Canberra Times it had ''the best shopping centre after Civic'', and ''with its 14,000 people is a good place to be''. Sadly, it soon became clear there could be no revival.
- Robert Lehane is author of Verity; a remarkable woman's journey (ASP, 2017), winner, non-fiction, ACT Writing and Publishing Awards 2018