Garston wins hearts of global magpies

JILL HERRON
Last updated 05:00 18/08/2014
tony sparks
JILL HERRON

AT HOME: Tony Sparks in the converted stables he and wife Bene call home at Garston.

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Bartering with shrewd traders in the sweaty chaos of Third World India is a challenge relished by Southland businessman Tony Sparks.

Tony and his French wife, Bene (short for Benedicte) import furniture and accessories to sell at their business in Garston.

It's the appeal of the old that first drew the couple to Garston, where they spotted the historic - and derelict - stone stables being sold with the Garston Hotel 11 years ago.

Bene's love of all things rural, combined with Tony's vision of the stables as a backdrop for his treasures, inspired the couple to leave Queenstown.

They eventually sold the Garston pub but transformed the stables into a unique home, whose elaborate interior whisks its inhabitants away from rural Southland to another world. Furniture and art collected from a myriad of countries, together with some of Tony's own works, have created a richly textured home that Tony says "feeds his soul".

"We never could have done this in Queenstown, it would have cost millions," he says.

The couple say they love the small community, the peace and quiet and the rural surroundings of northern Southland.

It seems the Sparks were both born under a wandering star.

Tony's family moved to Dunedin from London when he was 10 and Bene, from a town near Dijon, has backpacked extensively and lived in various places including London, New York and Edinburgh.

Tony, 66, travels at least once a year to Asia on buying trips that often incorporate exploring new territory and visiting family and friends.

India, he says, is going through rapid, almost frantic, modernisation.

Young businessmen are seeing out the old and bringing in the new at a great rate of knots in what is a vigorous industrial economy.

"I stick out on the street over there because I'm old. I've got grey hair. They're all young, in their 30s. I don't know where the old people are but you certainly don't see them."

Vast chunks of traditional real estate are being demolished to make way for modern apartment buildings and it's here that Tony finds his treasure.

"I'm a trader, a buyer and seller. It's just what I do and what I've always done."

He has established solid relationships with many Indian traders during the years and has trusted friends who invite him and Bene into their homes.

He often visits the Shekhawati region in Rajasthan where highly-decorated compounds or "havelis" were built from the 1800s onwards by wealthy merchants.

Today many of these beautiful buildings are literally crumbling into the sand.

As India focuses on modernisation, preserving such structures does not seem to be a priority, Tony says.

"There is one town about the size of Balclutha and the entire place is just falling down," he says.

"It floods in the monsoon and the stagnant water creates conditions for dengue fever and malaria.

"It smells pretty bad and it's difficult to get there but when you do, there are beautiful painted frescoes, carved panels and doors.

"It's all marble and hardwood. Just amazing."

Tony mainly deals with Jains, followers of India's sixth most popular religion.

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India's 4 million-plus Jains are strictly vegetarian and believe every creature and plant has a soul worthy of protection.

They go to great lengths not to harm man or beast.

During a business lunch, Tony inadvertently swatted a mosquito which landed on his arm. The conversation halted and an awkward silence ensued. Eventually the moment passed and talk resumed but the incident was not easily forgotten.

"The Jains are the bankers of India. They are very honest and very strict about their beliefs. It's important to obey the protocol of the religion."

While the business in Garston is thriving now, the couple have had to ride out some tough times to sustain it, particularly after a setback where a full container of goods was destroyed.

The antiques had been bought and paid for in India and loaded into a shipping container in a yard in Mumbai. The ship was loaded and the container spent weeks cruising through the sweltering tropics, eventually arriving in Garston by truck.

When Bene and Tony excitedly opened it up they were greeted by a rush of stinking water and the sight of rotted wood.

A waterline around the top of the container was evidence that it had sat in flood waters in Mumbai before slowly sloshing its way to New Zealand, destroying everything inside.

"It literally cooked the wood and even ate all the brass off the fittings. The insurance money took two years to come through. We were struggling."

A few years on and with plenty of established clients in Queenstown and elsewhere, business is good.

Come October, the couple are off to the world's most diverse continent again, this time for a bit of a spend-up for themselves as well as for the store.

There won't, however, be matching suitcases and fancy hotels for these self-confessed "mature backpackers".

They will stay as they always do, in the poky little family-run guest houses they love, to savour the adventure of experiencing the real India.

- The Southland Times

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