Tuesday, 31 July 2012

NZ Fine Prints shocked to lose our land in CBD rebuild


The release yesterday of the blueprint for the rebuild of Christchurch's central business district is great news for Christchurch, it's going to be a world class city to live and work in. However personally and professionally this writer (Antony Ellis, co-owner of NZ Fine Prints) is  bitterly disappointed that our perfectly ok to rebuild on CBD land that has been the home of New Zealand Fine Prints for nearly fifty years is going to be taken from my family by the council to be part of the green frame to the east of the new smaller CBD.  Our plans to rebuild the largest specialist art print gallery in NZ are now replaced instead by, wait for it,  a lawn.
Temporary repairs following the first quake
Although people buying prints in Christchurch are actually a relatively small part of NZ Fine Prints' overall sales (our biggest markets are Auckland, Wellington and overseas (if you group sales to expatriate New Zealanders and gifts sent out of NZ together) we were excited about being part of the rebuild of the Latimer Square precinct, a gallery like NZ Fine Prints is just the kind of unique niche retail business that makes the central city different from a mall or business park and draws people into the city to shop. We never wanted to be stuck in some utilitarian distribution centre out by the airport, it might make logistical sense for an online retail business to be right next to CourierPost but you would be mad to choose to spend 1/3 of your daily hours in the bland monoculture of industrial buildings when you can be in the heart of a city instead.

The DNA of New Zealand Fine Prints online store with its "long tail" of every NZ art print available in stock has been shaped by our unchanging location of nearly fifty years in in Christchurch's CBD.  NZ's largest art print store is obviously now predominantly an online business but even in today's world of online shopping customers knew there was a physical gallery to visit, that they were buying from a family owned and New Zealand based company.  We were not one of the huge American websites offering photo library scenic shots as "NZ posters", nor were we one of several dozen websites who have come and gone offering NZ prints, posters, framing etc run from home and relying on others to drop ship the prints to customers on their behalf or simply being an affiliate site fulfilling sales via an affiliate program.

Far end of our gallery stockroom (following Sept 4's
earthquake the table was for sheltering from aftershocks)
Owning our own warehouses (originally built for the Zealandia Wax & Candle company in the 1880s) in the centre of the city for such a long time led to a wonderful experience for print buyers. The smell of paper when they walked through the door, the sight of racks and racks of prints with the balance of editions carefully wrapped in brown paper and stacked on top of the shelving sometimes up to the ceiling.  Labels with the names of NZ's most famous artists and printmakers, files of correspondence with the likes of Colin McCahon, Rita Angus or Gordon Walters. Packages of prints of famous paintings imported from the States, Europe and Australia and decades of catalogues charting the changing tastes of New Zealand art buyers. 

We sometimes joked we were the "print sellers of last resort, a buyer would be looking for an obscure NZ print, for example a particular early view of Auckland, and this would trigger a chain of phonecalls and emails to us from galleries and picture framers as the buyer rang around repeatedly trying to find the picture but everyone knowing if they hadn't managed to find it yet if anyone still had the print it would be somewhere in our warehouse in Christchurch. And yes, sometimes we knew we had the print a buyer wanted in stock - but took some hours digging to actually find it.  Given both the size of the NZ market and the need to publish reproduction prints in such large editions before digital printing we did a brisk trade in replacing prints for people because if a print was damaged we might still have prints from the very same edition published twenty years before that were in pristine brand new condition.

Until very recently even our print codes told you where they were located on a physical shelf (letter was the bay, number was the row), there are some amusing artifacts of this system still at Prints.co.nz where for instance code "B00" meant the pile on top of the B rack!


Sign for NZ Fine Prints going back up after Sept 4
Personally for this writer 202 Hereford St has been the stage and backdrop of my life, where my family has lived our personal and professional lives since before I was born.  It's the place where my sister and I would wait all day for Dad to finish "a couple of things at the office" before we could leave for our holiday, where in the late 1970s we would watch the weird green light coming out of a photo copier the size of small car for hours and where we would be employed to lick the backs of hundreds of envelopes in return for caramel milkshakes from the cafe two doors away. It's where my wife to be and I came up with the idea to use the new technology of colour photocopying to create catalogues of prints to send to picture framers, galleries and schools. And we photographed all the prints with a new fangled digital camera on the deck by the carpark when we decided to put our mail order catalogues online back in 1999.
The ghostly outline of our buildings following demolition
We have been excitedly planning our part of the rebuild and were looking forward to having a modern (i.e. warm!) warehouse, office and showroom in the heart of the new Christchurch. What an amazing process to actually live through we thought, to watch the city being rebuilt around us. We looked forward to being one of the first businesses to "re-colonise the inner city".

After 18 months of working from shipping containers and from a temporary office in Cashmere yesterday was supposed to be the day we could begin getting down to the detail of rebuilding our buildings we lost in the quakes, we simply wanted and expected to put our gallery back on our land and this compulsory land acquisition announcement is a cruel twist in the already traumatic journey we have been on since September 2010. We don't want to shift, we'd lost our buildings but want to rebuild on our land, our place to stand, NZ Prints' turangawaewae.

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