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A good eye for it

10 April 2022
Henry Trading sign framed by plant and wallpaper

You go into Henry Trading for the beautiful artisan aesthetic and stay for the friendly Lytteltonian service. You're drawn back because owner and proprieter Maree Henry has an eye for curating local, ethically sourced goods that make great gifts – even if it's a gift for yourself. Words: Anna Wallace

Maree Henry, of Henry Trading in Lyttelton, held her first staff meeting in 15 years recently. For the first decade, she was it. Now, with six part-time staff including an office manager and web coordinator, Maree has more freedom to come and go.

“My staff are my frontline – they’re very important people. Meeting to discuss this Covid ‘thing’, we arranged split shifts which has worked well so far.”

Despite plenty of local support over the past two years, March saw trade in the iconic gifts and homewares store dip, as customers stayed at home.

“I’ve never seen carparks available in London Street – there’s gaps everywhere,” she laments.

Up sides

Based on this downturn, I assumed Maree would be happy the borders are opening to tourists again in a few weeks. However, the Lyttelton local is in two minds.

“I’ve loved the 1975 vibe of NZ communities over this time,” she confesses. “My husband and I have driven around the South Island six times over the last two years – waving to people on bridges, being in Great Walk huts with only five other people, and driving on roads that are less busy. To be a traveller in our country at this time has been quite special; it’s usually such an international wonderland but we’ve had it all to ourselves!

“But of course it’s been bad for townships. It’s been bleak. So at least by travelling we’ve helped bring some money their way.”

Transitioning the Henry Trading website to an e-commerce platform last year has proved to be a vital lifeline too.

“I didn’t know anything about algorithms or Insta ads! I’ve learnt a lot in the past year as we’ve stepped up to a 24-hour shop. It’s gone really well, but it’s so weird to see that someone in Napier has bought something at 11pm at night!”

Maree Henry looks around her gift and homewares store in Lyttelton

An eye for it

Maree began trading as Portico in 2007, in premises a few doors down from where she is now. After the earthquakes, she moved to the 100-plus year-old Mahar’s Building and named the shop after her father. In 2020 (yes, during a pandemic), Maree extended the store.

Loving the vibe of Henry Trading’s premises – from the dark colours to the low light, the preloved old furniture to the sash windows and old tin of the historic building – Maree muses that it “feels like a wild west store”.

Having spent 12 years in photographic printing (at Photo and Video in Merivale, under Greg Bramwell’s tutelage), Maree’s visual strengths are apparent in everything she does. Whether it’s converting some of her photos into greeting cards, photographing for and self-publishing coffee table books like Ghost town, knowing what will look good on a shelf, or giving her another reason to hit the road. Maree also loves what she sees from her house every morning and night.

“I’m here for the light; it demands your attention.”

Frank clay toys found at Henry Trading store

Her husband works in television and helps with the photography side of the business. Her daughter Ella, all grown now and living in Auckland, makes little tiny polymer clay figurines called Frank that are sold in store. All the local kids collect them.

Supporting local artisans

The big, beautifully colourful lamps that are dotted around the store always stop me in my tracks. Their ceramic bases are sourced from various potters in New Zealand and the shades are made in Sumner. Maree will sometimes prescribe colours, but other times will ask the artisan to make a collection of their own.

“Six weeks after ordering, a box will turn up of ceramics that have been glazed, fired, that look amazing. I like that the artist has been given the freedom to create a series of their own work.”

As a curator of local, ethically sourced items – anything from apparel to wooden toys, brooches to tableware – Maree is always eager to hear of someone making or doing something interesting.

“Sometimes there’s a bit of experimentation involved – I don’t follow any rules, I go with my gut and my eye. Our shop is about nice people making nice things.”

Nice indeed. While we’re on the phone I hear a customer say to Maree, “You have such a beautiful shop.” These comments flow on the daily, she says with pride. 

A lamp on a shelf in Henry Trading store in Christchurch

When she’s found a good local designer – like Kate Watts, Rory Grant or Turumeke Harrington – she’ll arrange the merch side of things – greeting cards, tea towels, t-shirts. Every summer and Christmas, new designs are ordered. Maree believes that by supporting local artists, it moves money around towns.

She’s currently excited about an Immunity Tonic from Chia Sisters of Nelson. A shot of their ginger, lemon, honey and turmeric concentrate “goes straight to the back of your throat” Maree declares.

Natural brushes, soap shakers (an eco-friendly version of dishwashing liquid) and solid shampoo bars are popular.

“Everyone’s talking about who’s made it, where it comes from, what it’s made of. Provenance is key right now.”

Henry Trading’s cute window display is currently Easter-themed, complete with trees, nests, rabbits and eggs. Maree believes the shop’s smells, colours, textures all provide comfort and embed memory. Many customers just come for a look and it’s the sort of place that you don’t forget.

“There’s a generosity involved in a shop like this; it’s not like a grocery shop. These objects get given, unwrapped, enjoyed.”

Gifts and homewares at Henry Trading shop

Locals call in constantly and it being a small town, Maree knows most community goings on. She’s generally the first to hear about a builder down the road who’s making chopping boards in his spare time.

This curated space means Maree is hit up by entrepreneurs and artisans multiple times a week. But there’s a buy-sell equation that Maree must factor in, and her experience helps.

“I know straight away if something is amazing or if it’s not quite right.”

Cause for celebration

It so happens that we’re talking on 31 March. The end of the business year. Maree’s getting the whole Henry Trading team together to do a stocktake, to keep the accountant happy she says. But it’s more than that.

“It’s a measure of how much we’ve grown. It’s a celebration of being another year in business. We’ll have pizza and I might even get some champagne.”

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