Written by Mary Rean
Photography by John Williams
Even if you don’t know him by name, most people will recognise Peter as the chap who sits outside his collectibles shop, Real Time, at 74 Ponsonby Road in just about all weathers, having a cuppa with anyone who has a few minutes to spare. Even this lucky writer was offered a very nice cup of tea, poured from an attractive little Art Deco teapot, and a Tim Tam from a rather lovely old biscuit tin.
“When I first started up here the area was pretty scruffy. You could get a house real cheap; it was six o’clock closing, Thursday was the only late night for shopping and everything was closed on the weekend. There were lots of second-hand shops and very few restaurants. Now the lovely old merchants’ houses have gone, the dance halls and cinemas have been pulled down and replaced with modern commercial developments, and who would have imagined so many coffee shops could be viable!”
Peter first chose his premises because of the art nouveau motif that supports an awning over the footpath outside the shop. “The awning is great, because even when it’s raining I can sit outside. I call it my city bach.“
The sitting outside came about by accident really: “I was only driven outside when it became unfashionable to smoke inside. But I like the social interaction with the street family,” he says, even to the point of regularly having dinner at his table, with old records playing in the background.
“It has given me an amazing relationship with the people round here”
When I first moved in there were second-hand car yards, low-rent businesses, not like the posh buggers now,” he says. “Back in the day a lot of musicians used to come by – I remember Malcolm McLaren, and when Mick Jagger performed at the Gluepot – and across the road (now Western Park), there was a group of shops – a sewing machine shop, food shops and a wine shop, where Colin McCahon used to buy his sherry.”
Peter has lived and worked in Ponsonby pretty much all his adult life. After dropping out of university part way through a degree in architectural history at art school in about 1973 where “I spent too much time kissing girls,” Peter was encouraged by a good friend to “look for stuff from inorganics. He showed me how to find stuff, clean it up and sell it,” he says.
So began what has turned out to be a 44-year-and-continuing career in rescuing vintage treasures from inorganic collections, hedges and other equally unlikely spots. In 1973 Peter took on the lease for 74 Ponsonby Road, and over the years it has variously been his home and business base. At one stage, the shop was across the road and he lived in his present premises.
The whole journey began when a good friend at art school, well-known artist Gavin Chilcott, showed Peter a book on the Minneapolis Institute of Arts Art Deco exhibition, “and I realised there was a lot of art deco in New Zealand – chrome, black glass, studio English ceramics – because NZ was largely colonised by English families. The quality of the products they brought with them and imported into New Zealand in those days was good. Everything was really well-made and even things manufactured locally were top quality.”
Peter began collecting and selling his treasures, specialising in Art Deco and other collectibles. “I am a hunter-gatherer. I just walk down the road and find things. The hard part is trying to decide what other people will want,” he says.
“It’s amazing what people throw away. I’ve had some real treasures over the years,” he says, telling the story of an old table someone was throwing into a hedge. Peter rescued it, cleaned it up and sold it the next day for $1000. Another thrilling find was a pair of advertising mirrors he uncovered in a 19th century shop that was being demolished.
“There’s plenty of treasure waiting to be discovered. Often it needs cleaning up or just a bit of understanding about what it is."
I see what I do as recycling, up-cycling, saving things from being thrown away,” he says. But Peter’s less sure of the collectability of today’s products: “The quality just isn’t there.”
Nowadays, his daughter Billie is working with him, introducing fresh ideas, and applying a bit of a handbrake to the collecting. What people will buy has changed a lot over the years, says Peter. “I have been through, ‘Let’s strip all the paint off and fill the house with spindle-back chairs and sideboards’. Victoriana is out; we’ve also been through mid-century, which I love,” he says. “I’ve still got a glass fish tank out the back somewhere,” he laughs.
It’s clear Peter is well known and liked; every second person who walks by pauses to pass the time of day. “It’s been fun watching all the people who have lived in the area, being part of their lives and their children’s lives. It really is a privilege to have been in one place for so long; it’s a village,” says Peter.