Few places are more wacky and wonderful than Oamaru, on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The town was built in grand Victorian style, largely on the proceeds of exporting frozen lamb, but was hit hard by the Great Depression of the 1930s, leaving many of its splendid warehouses and public buildings derelict. Since around 1990, however, Oamaru has been undergoing a revival, and its limestone façades are once again full of life, colonised by an enterprising collection of vintage dealers, gallerists, antiquarian booksellers and alternative therapists. It’s as if Portobello Road and Hay-on-Wye had settled here together at the bottom of the world.
The most enticing emporium is William Bee General Merchants, which was founded three years ago by Oamaru-born sisters-in-law Anneke Stevens and Sarah Jennings. It is housed on an imposing corner site built in 1878, and is named after the original owner, who ran a grocer’s, bakery and wine merchant’s, but today sells a colourful collection of clothing, homewares and gifts, mainly from small, independent New Zealand or Australian brands and artisans – and all unified by the distinctly Scandi, midcentury taste of its owners.
“Our aim is to feature items that aren’t run of the mill,” says Jennings. “Our stock is sustainably and ethically produced where possible, not widely available and, above all, good quality.” At the heart of this is the duo’s own brand Moke, which produces women’s outerwear to contend with the capricious New Zealand climate, namely super-lightweight down jackets (from NZ$209, about £105) and gilets (about £85) that pack into a matching bag and double as a pillow. They have also recently launched another line, Nyx & Min, which focuses on sportswear (shapely modal hooded pullover, about £40) and bags in Italian leather (slouchy backpack in black, grey, navy and tan, about £165).
Both their clothing designs and the surrounding space are minimalist yet not overly so, with the latter painted in pale, muted shades and feeling warm and homely. Turning around a building in bad repair was a family affair and, says Jennings, “very hard work. We’re proud when people ask who designed it.” And they’re equally proud of what it showcases – from the super-soft organic cotton childrenswear by homegrown label Nature Baby (merino/cotton sleep sack, about £85) and scented candles (about £30) in glass flasks by Melbourne-based Alchemy Produx, to the felted cashmere rugs (about £98) and baskets (about £55) handmade in Nepal from French firm Muskhane, and circular beach towels (about £33) by Hammamas. They also sell what they jokingly call “Kiwiana” – New Zealand-made goods that include handmade lambskin baby bootees (about £30), hand-carved greenstone jewellery (Koru necklace, about £180) and, from 2019, merino clothing.
The eclectic mix appeals to both locals and the burgeoning tourist trade. So much so, the store is shortly to expand and move its wholesale arm to the historic Loan & Mercantile building as Oamaru’s boom times return. The shop, like the town, is a joy – well worth swinging by.