(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, January 25.)
This was going to be a column about The Warehouse, but somehow it’s mutated into one about Greytown.
For the benefit of readers who have never been there, Greytown is a picturesque (some would say quaint) Wairarapa town with a population of roughly 2000.
In the past couple of decades it has become highly desirable as a bolt-hole for the elite of Wellington, which is little more than an hour’s drive away.
I say “weekend retreat”, but some people who bought weekend cottages there liked it so much they subsequently moved there permanently. The Wairarapa is full of affluent refugees from Wellington, but nowhere more so than Greytown.
Dame Fran Wilde has a place there. So does the man who succeeded her as chair of the Wellington Regional Council, former All Black Chris Laidlaw. Other residents include former top public servants, arty types and high-profile professionals.
They are drawn to Greytown by its relaxed pace, its attractive old buildings and its “villagey” atmosphere, not to mention the convenience of being a relatively short drive from Wellington yet enjoying a much nicer climate and a more congenial lifestyle.
Smart cafes, pricey furniture shops and up-market fashion boutiques line the main street. One entrepreneur even hauled an old two-storey wooden railways administration building across the Remutaka Hill from the Hutt Valley in six pieces, reassembled it and gave it a second life as the White Swan Country Hotel.
Paradoxically, Greytown acquired its charm partly as a result of historical neglect. When the Wairarapa railway line was built in the late 19th century, it bypassed Greytown. That meant development stalled there, whereas nearby Featherston and Carterton, both of which were on the railway route, surged ahead.
But it also meant that Greytown’s buildings were preserved pretty much in their original Victorian state, because there was no money to be made by tearing them down and building new ones. As a result, Greytown today is visually a lot more appealing than its neighbouring towns with their mish-mash of architectural styles.
For my taste, Greytown is a bit Midsomer, if you get my drift. I’m not suggesting grotesque murders regularly occur there, as in the TV town, but it’s cute, and there’s a certain social homogeneity. I call it a Decile 10 town, whereas Masterton, where I live, which is a bit further up State Highway 2, is definitely Decile 1-10.
So how did I get onto the subject of Greytown? Ah yes, The Warehouse.
I was going to write a column about the beneficial impact of The Warehouse on low-income New Zealanders. There’s a lot of opposition to so-called “Big Box’ retailers, but I recently stumbled across a Massey University research paper, published in 2007, which argued persuasively that The Warehouse had been good for low-income people, and particularly for Maori.
It had always been my impression that The Warehouse performed a socially and economically useful function by putting a wide range of products, often of good quality, within reach of people with limited disposable income.
The Massey paper not only confirmed as much, but also revealed that the company had a reputation for being good to its staff. Maori employees reported that they were treated well and given opportunities for advancement.
The Massey paper referred specifically to controversy in the wealthy Northland town of Kerikeri when the company proposed to open a store there roughly a decade ago.
Many of the predominantly Pakeha residents wanted Kerikeri to remain an “up-market” town. They were worried that The Warehouse would have a negative impact on the town's image.
Local Maori, however, were firmly in favour of The Warehouse opening a local branch because the existing Kerikeri shops were too pricey and they had to drive all the way to Kaitaia to find stuff they could afford.
And that brings me back to Greytown. Because when The Warehouse announced last October that it planned to open a temporary summer store in Greytown, there was a similar reaction. A local retailers’ spokesman protested that the “red-shed” brand didn’t fit the town’s image as a “quality and distinctive shopping destination”.
I drove past the temporary Warehouse store in Greytown just the other day. It’s very low-key. You have to look hard to see it, notwithstanding the red paint, so perhaps the local retailers were being over-sensitive. In any case it’s on the outskirts of town, so the local boutiques won’t be contaminated by its presence.
But here’s the thing: There didn’t seem to be anybody there. I’d noticed the same thing previously when I’d gone past.
What can we infer from this? Perhaps the people of Greytown are signalling, in a gentle way, that The Warehouse doesn’t really belong there. Or perhaps it’s the market saying there’s a right place for everything, and The Warehouse no more belongs in a town like Greytown than a BMW showroom belongs in Shannon or Takaka.
Footnote: In what I suppose could be seen as a happy compromise, The Warehouse did establish an outlet at Waipapa, near Kerikeri - close enough to satisfy price-conscious local shoppers, but sufficiently distant to leave Kerikeri's exclusive image intact.