Back in April 2018, news broke that the lease on Blackwell and Sons’ perky little cycling lifestyle store on Main Street in Greytown couldn’t be renewed. Children cried and birds stopped singing. But proprietor Adam Blackwell shrugged his shoulders and got busy. He soon found an opportunity to completely reimagine his retail proposition – and reimagine it he did.
“We got a bit lucky,” admits Adam Blackwell.
As time ran out on the lease at 101 Main Street, where Blackwell and Sons had forged its reputation for high-class service and products of impeccable quality and style, another era was ending less than 20 metres across the road.
The long-term tenants in Greytown’s old Borough Council Chambers – a Victorian masterpiece that had housed an assortment of enterprises since the Council vacated last century – were ready to move on.
Word gets around fast in Greytown, and Adam didn’t hesitate to enquire.
“When I first set foot in the old Chambers building, I immediately saw the possibilities,” he recalls. “With the help of local architect James Mackie’s vision and experience, and the wisdom of my wife Millie and colleagues Shane Kelly and Colin Barkus, I imagined a glorious open retail space that would exploit all of the charm, atmosphere and idiosyncrasies of what is an incredible building.
“It would be a quantum leap for the Blackwell and Sons business. It was a no-brainer.”
The building was already on the market, but a few productive meetings with its owner saw the hoardings come down and a long-term lease secured.
That was the easy bit.
“From the outset it was clear this would be no ordinary project,” Adam says. “There were the practical challenges presented by decades of additions and adjustments to the interior layout of the building that we needed to negotiate to create the clear canvas we were looking for.
“But there was also history to consider. The building is a treasured landmark that’s stood in Greytown for over 125 years. We knew we couldn’t ride rough-shod over the past to meet our business needs. We wanted to add to the building’s story, not destroy it.”
Key to achieving that aim was early engagement with Heritage New Zealand and Greytown’s own Historical Society. Consultations quickly established that compromise was not only possible, but could be the catalyst for creating something truly game-changing for the business and the town.
Plans were drawn up that would showcase the building’s original matai floors, ceilings and mouldings and, using a series of clever short partitions, tracing the lines of the internal walls as they appeared on original 1890s blueprints.
Colour schemes were conceived that were in keeping with both the era of the building and the striking theme that Adam wished to express throughout the store.
Display boards would celebrate some of the quirkier aspects of the building’s colourful past.
External signs, handmade by local craftsmen, would echo a bygone era and hang in complete sympathy with their neighbours in the middle of Greytown’s quaint shopping precinct.
“We collectively created a vision, marrying past and present, that we were all excited about. There were a million things to consider and, as the politicians call it, much ‘robust debate’.
“Then Joe and the team from Holmes Construction set to work making it a reality.”
Essential seismic strengthening was the first step, which entailed the installation of massive steel beams throughout the opened-up downstairs space.
Over the ensuing weeks, a symphony of construction noises reverberated around the building. Quizzical locals and visitors strained for a glimpse of the action through teasingly shrouded windows.
There were hiccups. The biggest came late in the project when a sample of the building’s old matai floorboards tested positive for asbestos. That set a phalanx of government officials into a frenzy, but despite their best efforts, all subsequent testing came back negative.
“It was a false alarm that cost us two weeks and, just quietly, quite a lot of money,” Adam says.
“No matter. Thanks to a Herculean effort by the team, we got there. And the end result is everything we hoped for, and more.”
At about 1.30am on Friday 16 November 2018, the finishing touches were made. Blackwell and Sons’ new retail headquarters opened for business later that morning.
“Our new emporium is beautifully crafted to showcase our Pashley bicycles and amazing range of accessories, picnicware, apparel and outdoor items. The cabinetry is fabulous. The lighting incredible. It even smells good, which Shane claims most of the credit for,” says Adam.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is the personal hand that each member of the team had in the project,” he adds.
“On top of my thematic vision, brought to life by James and Joe, Shane was able to design a practical space for storing, assembling and maintaining bicycles utilising the annexes at the back of the building.
“Colin used his carpentry skills to build us a fantastic rustic display bench that sits inside our show workshop in the store. His sharp wit is also on show in some of our interior signage.
“And Millie brought her incredible eye for presentation to the fore in our amazing merchandise displays that show off our range to fantastic effect. She also individually ironed, tagged and catalogued several hundred T shirts in the days leading up to our after opening!
Adam says that while the move might’ve been enforced, and has taken the business just a few metres over the road, it’s enabled light years of advancement in terms of the space, sophistication and sensual experiences he can offer to customers.
“I’d like to think that some of the characters who’ve occupied this amazing space over the years might be looking on with approval!”