SIGNS of green shoots are appearing in York through the restoration of heritage buildings into unique attractions fast disappearing in Perth.
Rob Garton-Smith and Jenny Garroun opened their first fine art gallery and gift-cafe on Saturday in the old backpackers building opposite Barclay Books, another restored treasure in Avon Terrace.
The late William Dinsdale commissioned the 19th century buildings when he was Mayor of York and several decades after arriving on a convict ship in 1858.
Front and centre of Gallery 152 is the reappearance of the building’s original facade, a colonial-style veranda lovingly restored to its former grandeur.
Large display windows frame the reinvented interior and welcome shopfront for artists who live and work in the Central Wheatbelt region.
Rob and Jenny salvaged any remnants of the original veranda and copied details of the design taken from an advertisement drawn in 1891, copies of which appear in the York Residency Museum and in the dining room of Settlers House.
“People were very excited to see the facade go back, I think it sends a powerful message to visitors that York is open for business,” she said.
“While bookshops and galleries are closing in Perth, it’s great to be able to offer locals and visitors the opportunity to experience literature and the arts other than on the internet in shops such as these.”
For six years, the abandoned backpacker building and linked cottages – among the oldest in WA – lay in neglect until Rob and Jenny saw the potential to reinvent the property while unravelling some of the history.
They transformed part of the building into a gift-cafe and recycled a disused jarrah staircase into cafe tables.
One of the most exciting finds of the restoration was the discovery of Dinsdale’s legacy, immortalised in writing on a wall as an ‘importer of high class boots and shoes’.
The bootmaker and former mayor constructed the building in 1886, his store a most likely stop-off for fortune seekers in search of quality footwear en route to the goldfields.
Rob and Jenny bought a weekender in York about eight years ago and enchanted by the history of the town, they looked for business opportunities nearby.
With an interest in promoting arts of the region, Jenny started The York Festival in 2014 and held several events to culminate in a September showcase of exhibitions and music.
The festival became the catalyst for a permanent art space and a place to hold creative workshops and cultural experiences.
With more than 20 years’ experience as the financial controller of a Perth film company, Jenny became the ‘number cruncher’ for the new venture.
“The restoration cost more than we expected, over $100,000, but at the same time what’s possible in York would be far harder to achieve in Perth,” she said.
“There are lots of reasons why you wouldn’t take on a project like this and lots of reasons why you would.”
The result is the heritage-listed art gallery and a launch exhibition of contemporary work by six artists with York connections including work by sculptor Tim Burns, potter Stewart Scambler, sculptor Susie Marwick and painter John Feeney.
The presentation of paintings, furniture and ceramics is reflective of the influences the area has on the artists, and future exhibitions will incorporate artwork from around Australia.
A visit to the gallery is not complete without time spent in the Botanicalia gift shop and cafe next door and a look at the 1850s cottages and gardens located behind the building.
The cottages provide accommodation for the residential workshops and other gallery events.
Across the road, friends Clayton and Barbara Smith are celebrating their first anniversary as the owners of Barclay Books, ‘a home for books’ and veritable treasure trove for anyone remotely bookish.
Visitors are welcome to while away time browsing shelf upon shelf of well-ordered paperbacks, hardbacks and collectors’ items before sinking into a squishy leather sofa to experience the Dickensian-style ambience.
Mr Smith said the restored building previously experienced life as the town’s council chambers in 1897, a fire station until 1997 and more briefly as a community centre.
Prior to purchasing the premises, the couple discussed their project with the State Heritage Office and worked closely with the Shire of York to make the building compliant with building standards for retail use.
The $15,000 to $20,000 estimate for the heritage renovation does not include the interior fit-out and some additional expenses.
Mr Smith’s knowledge of books extends to 13 years at the helm of a Hay Street bookstore and many more as a collector of antique books.
“The reaction of people who are into books is quite powerful when they first visit the shop; the combination of old and new books blows them away,” he said.
“One couple came back to York to spend their wedding anniversary in here, sitting on the couches and reading books.”
With about 10,000 books on the shelves and another 30,000 in stock, Clayton said the selection is a drawcard for day-trippers and popular with younger generations who prefer their recreational reading in ‘hard copy’ and not a digital format.
“Buying online may be practical and we do sell books online, but the bookstore experience is a world apart,” he said.