A collage of four film photos showing shopkeepers standing behind the counters of their shops
Wellington shopkeepers (All photos by Hamish Thompson)

SocietyApril 27, 2024

Behind the counter: Wellington shopkeepers

A collage of four film photos showing shopkeepers standing behind the counters of their shops
Wellington shopkeepers (All photos by Hamish Thompson)

A new exhibition in Wellington showcases the faces behind your local goods and services.

Back in 1977, when I was a fine arts student at the University of Canterbury, I took a series of photographs of Christchurch shopkeepers. The photos were for a calendar – a project for my end of year submission. I don’t remember how or why I chose the topic, but the idea of having photos of shopkeepers, being their own boss surrounded by their wares, appealed to me. 

After a gap of 47 years I decided to continue the series – this time in Wellington – using the same camera and the same type of black and white film. 

In nine months I photographed, using a “snapshot style”, the 30 shopkeepers who feature in this exhibition. They represent a variety of small shops that have caught my eye on the streets of Wellington. 

This series of photos celebrates the personalities of the owners and their shops and illustrates how they contribute to the unique character of Wellington. Some have been family-run businesses since the 1920s. They include book stores, barber shops and florists, as well as stores specialising in fabrics, hats and ice cream.

These local businesses create a sense of place and community identity. They also provide personal customer service and a welcome alternative to chain stores and online retailers.

A black and white film photo of an older man wearing a suit and standing in his suit shop
Robert Vance – Vance Vivian, Wellington Central

Menswear store Vance Vivian, founded in 1924 by George Vance and Harold Vivian, is today a third-generation, family-owned-and operated business on Lambton Quay.Robert Vance started working in the shop at the age of 10, making suit boxes in his school holidays. He and his brother Hamish took over the business 40 years ago after buying it from their father. They are hands-on owners, working in the store alongside their staff. Robert has seen many changes over the years, noting that, “there are very few independent businesses left in Wellington, especially in the clothing business”.

Black and white film photo of two men standing behind the counter of their shoe repair shop
Vijay and Esvar Parbhu – Dixon Street Shoe & Bag Repairs, Te Aro

Esvar Parbhu started an apprenticeship in 1953 with his father, who established a shoe and bag repair shop in Upper Cuba Street in 1929. Today Esvar works with his son Vijay in their Dixon Street shop, where they have maintained a loyal customer base, despite the many changes in their trade. When Esvar began work. all the shoes and bags were made of leather and everything was hand-sewn or nailed. Over the years he has seen a trend to more casual footwear made from synthetic materials. As Vijay says, “We’ve adapted and understand this is now the future of footwear, though we’re always pleased to see brogue shoes or a welt stitched sole!”

A woman stands in her fruit and vege shop, with goods behind her
Sandra Lai – Eastbourne Fruit Supply, Eastbourne

Sandra Lai started out in the Eastbourne Fruit Supply as an after-school helper. Founded by her parents Jack and Jenny Lai in 1953, the shop is Eastbourne’s longest-running business, now managed by three of their children – Tom, Richard and Sandra. The family’s longstanding service to their community has included employing generations of local teenagers, providing many with their first jobs. Sandra considers herself lucky to be in Eastbourne working with her brothers, commenting that, “we couldn’t do it without each other”.

Black and white photo of a woman standing at the counter of her leather bag store with bags around her
Jessie Wong – Yu Mei Lounge, Te Aro

Jessie Wong founded her luxury leather goods business in 2015, when she couldn’t find a design-conscious bag that fitted everything she needed for a day. Nine years later, Yu Mei has more than 37 stockists, including internationally renowned fashion destinations Farfetch, Bergdorf Goodman and Harrolds. The Yu Mei Wellington Lounge opened in 2019 with a large Giotto marble island as the centrepiece, creating a communal space where people can sit, have a drink or a chat and learn more about the brand. Jessie says, “Many bags have been designed out of conversations in the Lounge, and it serves as a place of collaboration, not just transaction.”

A baker stands behind her pastries in her bakery
Grainne Kerr – Baker Gramercy, Berhampore

Pastry chef Grainne Kerr is the general manager of Berhamphore’s Baker Gramercy, founded by James Whyte in 2014.
Grainne describes the small community business as “a French artisan bakery. We try to keep to the classics – nice and elegant with beautiful flavours. Indulgent.” What she most enjoys about her job is the three-day process of making croissants, her favourite pastries. “They are the hardest to learn and make; such a classic, elegant pastry with a huge amount of complexity behind it. Very rewarding to make and eat of course!”

A man stands in his bicycle shop surrounded by bikes
Dan Mikkelsen – Bicycle Junction, Te Aro

Dan Mikkelsen has ridden bikes since childhood, including as a bike messenger in Auckland, San Francisco, Montreal and Copenhagen, where he trained as a chef. His passion for bikes and coffee and his vision to grow an ethical business led to Bicycle Junction, a specialist “bikery”, selling and fixing bikes, running workshops and events, and providing an in-store café. “The thing that gives us most joy in the shop is watching parents go by on bikes with two or three kids on the back. It feels like you’re really making a bit of a change, because undoubtedly that’s a car that’s coming off the road. We sell all types of bikes, but those are the most rewarding for me.”


A hairdresser stands in her salon in a black and white photo
Gale Walker – Just Teasing Hairdressing, Te Aro

Gale Walker opened Just Teasing Hairdressing on Cuba Street in 1994 and is still loving what she does. “I enjoy the connection with people and the people we work with. We have really long relationships – some of our clients have been coming for over 30 years.’ Today, Gale’s Willis Street salon has a very distinctive and colourful style, with many artworks by friends. She appreciates what others have brought to her business. “That’s the thing about salons, they actually belong to everyone – everyone has input. It’s like this because of all the people who come here and their energy. Visually it’s what I like but it also has input from others.”

A black and white photo of a man behind the counter at his fish and chip shop with menu above and behind him
Tim Sheng – Alicetown Seafoods, Alicetown

Tim and Olivia Sheng bought Alicetown Seafoods in 2016, soon after arriving in New Zealand from Hubei, China. They had never worked in this type of business before (Tim was an engineer in China) but chose to buy a fish and chip shop as it was easy to learn the cooking process (“You only have two deep fryers!”). Olivia says, “The best thing about the business is we enjoy people – we really enjoy talking with our customers.” Tim had no English when they arrived, “But now he can talk with our regular customers. They talk about the weather or the food or something – so it’s kind of like talking with family.”

A man with an impressive beard in his hat shop with hats lining the wall behind him
Simon Smuts-Kennedy – Hills Hats, Petone

Hills Hats’ story began in 1875 when Englishman Chas Hill opened Hill and Sons, Men’s Hatters on Wellington’s Lambton Quay. Almost 150 years later Simon Smuts-Kennedy runs the business from a factory and shop in Petone, following in the footsteps of his father Pieter. Customers include the New Zealand Police and New Zealand Defence Force, along with musicians and others who enjoy wearing hats. Simon believes that a hat can “add to a person’s personality and give them a lift”.

A man stands in his household cleaning store, with various scrubbing brushes hanging from the ceiling above him
Mark Ussher – Good House Keeping, Te Aro

Mark Ussher opened eco/DIY store Good House Keeping in Cuba Street in March 2018, selling well-made goods and eco-friendly recyclable products. Mark’s idea for the store was to have “a mix of everything – hardware, tools, eco products – kind of like an old general store or hardware shop.” For Mark, Wellington’s Cuba Street was the perfect location. “You have public servants, business people, cruise-ship tourists, alternative life-stylers, students, rich, poor, punks, hipsters – everything. Cuba Street’s the one place you can see it all.”

‘Behind the counter: Wellington shopkeepers’ is showing at Thistle Hall Gallery on Cuba Street from April 22-28.

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