In today’s ever increasingly globalised economy, where retail giants buy and sell on scale, small family-owned businesses are something to be revered.
Nestled amongst the frangipani trees on Bourbong Street is a little shop with a big heart that has stood the test of time.
Avenell Brothers opened its doors in Bundaberg in 1898 and has seen its fair share of challenges; from wars, recessions and natural disasters to family successions and the rise of online shopping.
What started as a newsagency, sports store, tobacconist and seedsman is today a treasure chest of highly sought after homewares, gifts and decorations.
The founder’s great grandson, John Greenhalgh has been at the helm for more than 20 years and attributes the store’s longevity to passion and reinvention.
“As a kid, I always wanted my own shop. I used to cut old bits and pieces up and make new things to sell to my family for pocket money,” John said.
John started working in the store when he was ten-years-old, alongside strong Avenell women.
John’s 93-year-old mum, Shirley, still does the books today.
“People often ask what happened to the two old ladies who worked here – they’re still alive and visit the store every week,” John said.
“I recently asked Aunt Betty what (Great) Grandad would have thought about us still being opened.
She said he would be very pleased because he never thought it would have life beyond the 1960s.”
John and his parents, Shirley and Ron, purchased the business in 1977 while also growing sugar cane in Sharon.
“I think they had my future in mind,” John said.
“And my brother, Adrian is on the home farm continuing those Greenhalgh family traditions.”
When he finished school, John left Bundaberg to become a pharmacist.
“I wasn’t happy in Melbourne and thought maybe I should go back and see if I can do something with the family business, rather than work for someone else for the rest of my life. I said I’d give it six months. That was in 1998.
“Initially I had to keep working as a pharmacist at Chippindalls three days a week because the business wasn’t earning enough to pay me a wage, and we wanted to put new stock on the shelves.”
John said he and his parents put their stamp on the business because there had been significant cultural and style changes in Australia.
“It was the era of everyone having Royal Doulton or Wedgwood dinner sets. We moved back into those things that Avenells hadn’t stocked for maybe 50 years, and we did it very well,” he said.
“Change can be hard, but you’ve got to do it. It’s what helps a business evolve and keep going. My Great Grandfather embraced change.
“Going through Avenell’s history you can see that some of our growth has been intentional and some of it is serendipity. Sometimes things fall at your feet and you need to run with that.
“I’m at the stage that I need to move the store on to the next thing. I’m not sure where we’re going, but I’m open to suggestion and we’ll find it.”
Today, Avenell Brothers stock timeless classics like Waterford and Bunnykins, as well as the latest trends.
The result is a curious homewares wonderland – a rabbit hole anyone would be glad to fall down.
An avid collector of fine art and vintage homewares (tartan picnic tin pictured), John said timing and intuition were crucial to the success of any small business.
“We ride the wave while they’re on trend and then suddenly everyone stops collecting or buying a particular product, style or design,” John sharply clicked his fingers.
“The classics eb and flow, but you’ve got to know when the contemporary lines have peaked and stop at the top. We’ve made mistakes; one too many orders on a particular range and then you can’t move the stock.
“You can invest in good product, but you’ve got the timing wrong. You can hold something for two years, and then suddenly they’ll all be gone at once, but you need room in your budget for that.”
When asked what drives him, John is blunt and to the point.
“It’s my passion in life. The reason Avenells is still here is because we are passionate about it,” he said.
“You’ve got to have passion. My Mum has always been passionate about it. There were times Betty considered working somewhere else, but her passion was for her Grandfather’s institution, so that passion has come through each generation.
“It’s the history of it. I enjoy being at the store every day, which will allow me to keep working there well beyond retirement age. My customers are happy. It’s nice serving people who are happy.”