Family navigates 150 years in retailing

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A retail dynasty described .. Author Colin Amodeo, left, and the Blackwell family patriarch, David, during the launch of Pattern of the Years. Photo: Neil Clarkson

By NEIL CLARKSON

Retailing has run through the veins of the Blackwell family for six generations. That story has now been chronicled in a book describing the colourful history of the family’s Kaiapoi store.

Pattern of the Years was formally launched last week at a function in the Kaiapoi Club, just a 30-second walk from the new Blackwells Department Store that rose in the aftermath of the 2010-11 earthquakes.

Author Colin Amodeo, who has penned about 20 books, lays out the history of a family firm that first opened as the Railway Store in Kaiapoi in 1871.

The general store was opened by George Henry Blackwell to capitalise on the boost in trade expected with the extension of the railway line to the river town.

“Six generations of the one family had kept it going through fire, flood, economic fluctuation and earthquake,” Colin said.

It was, he said, quite a record in its own right, especially in the face of corporate raiders and the development of shopping malls, as well as the Farmers in Rangiora. “You don’t often meet that kind of record.”

Andrew Blackwell told those gathered for the launch that he was part of the fifth generation to manage the store, and six generations have worked in it.

“We like being retailers,” he said. “We’re still here happily trading in this great little town.”

Andrew said he had met Colin through the Kaiapoi Maritime Heritage Trust. The trust had commissioned Colin to pen a book on the port’s history, Taking the Bar

He approached Colin to see whether he would be interested in writing the store’s history.

“We like being retailers” . . . Andrew Blackwell speaks during the book launch. Photo: Neil Clarkson

The resulting book chronicles 148 years of trading, weaving some of the history of Kaiapoi, Canterbury and even wider New Zealand into the account.

Andrew’s 92-year-old father, David, had been an especially valuable source of company history, he said, noting that his father had been involved with Blackwells Ltd for more than 70 years.

Waimakariri Mayor David Ayers commended the book project, saying it made an important piece of local history available to a wider audience.

“It is important to record the commercial history of communities.”

Businesses, he said, were not separate from communities, and their success was important.

David described the book as an interesting exercise, praising the book-writing efforts and camaraderie he developed with Colin. “It is amazing what he found out.”

Colin said he delved into a range of sources for the project, including the extensive Blackwell family papers, archived newspapers, the National Archives in Christchurch, and the Kaiapoi Museum. The Kaiapoi Museum had back copies of the North Canterbury papers as well as company information.

He said his interest was piqued when Andrew raised the possibility of him writing the store’s history.

“Having lived at Ohoka in the 1970s, going to Blackwell’s had a certain magic quality about it for me and my young family, almost Old Curiosity Shop stuff, and that offered an appropriate beginning for the book.”

He said he and David shared some hilarious moments from their days at St Andrew’s College, as well as various incidents in the Blackwell story.

“We’d meet on a Saturday morning and yarn away for a couple of hours, me taking a few notes but mostly using a small tape-recorder and transcribing later.

“Over tea and scones, it was all very relaxed ..”

His research unearthed some long-forgotten pieces of Blackwell history, including the fact the company had, in the early days, owned shares in a shipping company operating out of Kaiapoi Port.

So, having delved into the company’s history, why has one family endured in retailing for so many generations?

“Put simply, as David Blackwell always emphasised, service to the community came above profit; looking after your customers and adapting to their requirements.”

Pattern of the Years contains another recipe for success. In the 1930s the store had a bakery, which produced a popular sultana cake. The recipe is given in the book – and the cake was part of the supper fare after the launch.

Pattern of the Years: The Story of Blackwells Department Store, by Colin Amodeo, is available for $39.90 from Blackwells Department Store in Kaiapoi and The Little Book Company in The Gables Arcade, Rangiora.