With its floor-to-ceiling mirrors, dishes of crested teaspoons, and glass cabinets housing glass crockery, Owl’s Attic is the good kind of overwhelming.
And when the black light flicks on, illuminating a previously unassuming dish – “like some kind of acid trip” – you know you’ve arrived in a veritable Aladdin’s cave.
Kirsten Ryan and Paul Bainbridge, the magpie-like collectors responsible for the treasure trove, say the Carterton shop wasn’t part of their life plan – and a ute crashing into the side of it certainly wasn’t. But sometimes, that’s just the way the store front crumbles.
The couple, who are also district nurses who’ve “seen some gnarly things”, moved to Wairarapa from Gisborne two years ago to be closer to family.
The former trophy shop on High St leapt out of the for-sale listings, and they, in turn, took a leap of faith.
Then, on a quiet Thursday morning just after New Year, a ute carrying two young men ploughed into the shop’s south wall.
Crockery, china, and crystal vases went flying.
Thankfully, no one was injured, but there was plenty of damage, with more than $4000 worth of carefully curated items reduced to matchsticks and glass shards.
“We’ve lost a lot,” says Bainbridge. “Several pieces of furniture, two display cabinets, a bar trolley with secret compartments, a big oak wardrobe, rosewood glory box, and a vase table that is over 100 years old that will never be the same.
“There were people on the door the next day trying to help: ‘I’m strong, I don’t know what to do, but I’ll clean.’ That was great.”
But the shortage of structural engineers and builders means a new wall could still be six months away.
Bainbridge says he has sympathy for the driver, who reportedly fell asleep after an overnight hunting trip: “There’s nothing to gain from pressing charges, he’s 18, and already lost a ute.”
So even with a quarter of the shop gone in the high season, the pair is focusing on the positives. “We’re selling better now than we ever have,” Bainbridge says. “Our eye is much better now.”
So what makes for a good eye? Trial and error, apparently.
“We both just loved op-shopping,” Ryan says.
“We definitely made a tonne of mistakes when we started, lots of things we couldn’t sell. It’s the classic human condition: Because we love it,” says Bainbridge, “we think everyone else will.”
What they love turns out to be anything quirky from the ’80s or earlier. “Also, just something that is super cool. You can get something that lasts generations,” says Bainbridge, “with dovetailing wood … it’s not put together with fibreboard and screws.”
However, most items take a pit stop in the workshop before making it to the shop floor: “We get very excited if something is in good nick, but it’s very few and far between.”
Bainbridge points out an oak-wood-looking Chinese chest. “We picked it up in a local estate sale. The couple had travelled all over India and Asia. I stripped it back, added new chains, cleaned it all out – it was about two days of work.”
Next to it, a pair of thin rimu shelves – which may have once framed a fireplace – that were found in a barn covered in bird excrement.
Even if no structural repairs are required, Ryan says everything is triaged in the kitchen first – for a good wash.
While Ryan is still working four days a week in the community – “dressing wounds, IVs, catheterisation, palliative, the works” – an injury means Bainbridge is currently taking care of the shop, and shopping. Every few weeks, he moves beyond Wairarapa’s boundaries, bouncing around auction houses and estate sales across the North Island.
The couple is also pushing their own boundaries online, with a new Instagram account. “My daughter helped set us up,” Ryan says, confessing that there was “a lot to learn” about the subtleties of emojis and social media vernacular.
“But it’s proved worthwhile and is now providing the lion’s share of their online sales.
And are the sales enough to have them pursue their labour of love full-time?
“It’s paying for itself,” Ryan says, “but I’ve got to work. Hopefully, we’ll get to the point where I can spend more time here, but I would never want to stop nursing completely.”