Overflowing with Treasure
Words & Images: Jill Worrall
Dr Who would feel quite at home in Mayfield…because in this “blink-and-you’ll miss-it” town is Canterbury’s very own “tardis”. To be accurate, of course, the building that houses Overflow is rather larger than a police box but step inside and you’ll find yourself saying what every visitor to the “tardis” utters: “But it’s bigger on the inside…..”
AND JUST TO ADD to the mystery, there’s a palpable sense of stepping back in time….here a Victorian-era brooch, there an Edwardian fur stole; curtain fabric straight from the swinging sixties, a classic 1970s Temuka coffee mug.
But that’s only the start…plunge deeper in, past the 50s knitting patterns, the stacks of Crown Lynn crockery; stumble briefly into the light beside the bright orange bath tub and then disappear again into the shadowy world of the man caves where old machinery and tools have come, not to die, but to be lovingly recycled; emerge again to a merrygo-round; a scythe resting against a wall until Father Time returns to claim it.
And in the midst of it, somewhere will be Jan Howden, owner of all she surveys, even if, given her small stature relative to the towering wardrobes and shelves, she'd need at least a ladder to see even a fraction of her stock in one glance. This is a shop where people pop in for a few minutes and stagger out three hours later clutching an éclair mould, a sugar bowl like grandma’s and a giant moa made of old machinery parts.
Jan opened the doors of Overflow about 18 years ago… she hadn’t planned to; she’d been using the former Pine Gould
Guiness building as storage for stock for shops she had been
running in Queenstown and Christchurch. “People could see in the windows and kept nagging me to open up.”
And they still nag now because Jan operates on somewhat
erratic opening hours, a quirk that most visitors regard as part
of Overflow’s charm, as is the fact that none of the thousands
of items in stock bear a price tag.
Jan reckons she’s got so much coming and going she doesn’t have time to price it all. So, while we chat there’s a stream of inquiries: how much is this Art Deco light, this old suitcase. Jan can name the price instantly.
That’s not surprising. Jan was brought up in a 22-room house at Lismore, as she puts it “just down the road”. A member of the Sparrow family, which has been on the Ashburton retail scene for more than a 100 years, Jan was surrounded by a house full of family treasures.
“My grandmother didn’t read bedtime stories but would tell me about what she did and ate when she was a child. I got a taste for history and the family stories from her.”
Jan married Peter Howden (“another move just down the road again!’’) and, although she was busy with two children and was involved in dozens of community groups, she still found time for collecting and delving into the past.
“My mother-in-law had a wonderful collection of clothing and through that I started to collect lace, ribbons and especially buttons to make repairs. By the 1960s I had thousands of buttons, then hats, then somehow there were photographs and postcards….”
As Jan’s collection grew she began to sell the surplus to Christchurch second-hand shops, which in turn led to owning shops operating in conjunction with her son Alastair and daughter-in-law Leanne.Today the business is based solely in Mayfield. Jan alsoowns the former Mayfield post office that is currently used for, well, the overflow from Overflow.
“I bought that about nine years ago. It was painted purple with green spots at the time and I couldn’t stand it so I bought it.” The yard beside the shop came next, enabling Jan to display and store her agricultural and mechanical collection. She confesses that there’s still rather a lot of stuff still at home too. “Put it this way, we can’t shear in the shearing shed.”
Almost all the vast array comes from deceased estate sales. She’s still taken aback at times by what families throw away. “Lots of the younger generation don’t want to keep stuff but at one house I’d been asked to clear I found an antique wedding dress, the family christening gown and all the family photographs in a skip. It’s not uncommon to find beautiful jewellery thrown out either. Because it’s sometimes grubby people don’t realise it’s valuable.”
There’s not much that Jan hasn’t encountered during a house clearance. “There was the one place where we found 25 tubes of KY Jelly. It was stashed everywhere; we’ve found First World War era marital aids made of glass that you filled with warm water…”
Over the years Jan’s heard both fascinating and sad stories as she helps children clean out family homes.
“It’s important to listen; be tactful. It’s an emotional time for people and there can be some dreadful rows over who gets what. I’ve sent them out for a cup of tea on occasions just to talk things over. Occasionally people just can’t agree… especially if it’s a marriage break-up. One couple couldn’t decide on who got the dog so they put it down.”
Then there’s the special moments when a box opens to reveal ball dresses: “looking like they’d come from a suitcase rescued from the Titanic; perfect period pieces or a bride’s trousseau, untouched.”
Jan has a special love for the clothing and textiles from the past. If there was one era she’d happily be whisked back to it would the the 20s and 30s, the era of the flapper girls, the Charleston.
“I’ve also gained a huge respect for our pioneering women. These girls came out from Britain knowing they’d never seetheir own families again and then raised children, oftenin great hardship, and all the time having to dress in such unsuitable clothing. They don’t get nearly enough credit.”
Jan knows her textiles but she’s no slouch when it comes to machinery either. “Dad was a “mechanaholic” and as a young girl I’d driven a horse and team so I know my harness gear too. I’ve
surprised a few men who’ve assumed I wouldn’t know what was what in the man caves.”
What sells is just as affected by fashion as anywhere else, says Jan. “If one of the glossy house and garden magazines features blue china I can’t keep up with demand. Then when it’s all yellow kitchens all the blue stuff comes back and everyone wants yellow. When cupcakes were all the rage I couldn’t find enough three-tier cake stands.”
Brides with a wedding theme in mind are regular visitors. “It might be old nail boxes for flower arrangements or Crown Lynn swans for centrepieces or 20 tea-sets for 20 gazebos…you name it.”
After the first Canterbury earthquake women would visit the shop desperate to match up a precious cup with a saucer or to replace a broken item in a dinner set. “Then after the other quakes they’d be back again but this time they’d be saying ‘just give me some *X!#% enamel!’ ”
Overflow attracts visitors from all over New Zealand and beyond.
“Some Dutch tourists who’d been told about us flew down
especially from Auckland, rented a car in Christchurch just to drive to us.”
Operatic societies looking for costumes are regular visitors as is the film industry. Jan supplied costumes for Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. Then there are the celebrity chefs looking for special cake tins or items to adorn their studio kitchen sets. ”I won’t name them because I’m not into namedropping.”
It’s meeting the visitors to the shop that gives Jan almost as much pleasure as acquiring the stock. “I encourage children to touch things…they need to learn how to treat special things, after all the adults are all digging through the stuff! I like it too when women try on a dress and come out and consult a complete stranger about it. It’s that kind of shop. People talk to each other.”
We’re wandering through the shop now…someoneinquires about war memorabilia while admiring the wooden set of drawers holding linotype that came from an Oamaru newspaper office.
“If I had a dollar for every piece of war memorabilia I’ve been asked for, or old NZ Railway cups…” She points out an Oamaru Steam Punk mug, one of her favourite pieces. “Peter says it’s the first thing he’d throw out if I’ve popped off. Just as well he doesn’t know how much I paid for it.”
We pass through what looks to me like a crammed Crown Lynn room. “I’m a bit low on stock at the moment. It’s very popular; doesn’t chip like all the stuff from China.”
We venture outside past the retro food caravan run by Leanne. She serves coffee, Staveley sausage rolls, soup in winter; home baking. There’s a sawn-off bath to sit on; herbs and salad veges for the menu grown in an eclectic array of containers among the machinery.
There’s an Austin 10 in a shed. This is often parked outside and visitors can dress up and take it for spin around the block. “They just have to promise to wave to everything. People, sheep, dogs…the lot.
“There’s not much I won’t buy…did get offered a coffin once which I didn’t take. I don’t like dolls or teaspoons but buy them because people ask for them. Someone asked me if I’d buy everything he could sell me and I said yes. Then discovered he really did mean everything: the house, the land, the tractors….”
Jan, who’s in her 70s, admits to a few health problems including having had a stroke, but has no plans to retire. “I’m staying on to spite the specialist who said I should be dead by now. If you give up you die. And if I stayed at home I’d have to do the housework.”
The aftermath of the stroke means Jan finds watching television or reading difficult so the shop is both work and leisure. “Haven’t been on a lot of holidays. Peter reckons that if I go before him he’ll just bring the ashes in the camper van and take me on holiday then.