Ian Bell’s been one of that increasingly rare breed in Queenstown – an independent retailer. Ahead of him shutting shop this week, he tells Philip Chandler about the highs and lows of his business career, and explains how he got that carved mermaid in the doorstep
Sixty-four-year-old Ian Bell has spent exactly half his life as a Queenstown retailer.
As he shut his 45 South store this week, he reflected on how the ’80s and ’90s were his heyday and how, since then, it’s got tougher for independents.
Originally from Palmerston North, Bell came to town 45 years ago, intending to pass through but staying instead.
“I used to go to Aussie for the summers and come back here for the winter. I wasn’t a skier at the time, but I became one, and I just loved the party-town aspect.”
He says in the ’70s he worked as a barman or porter for several hotels, staying above Eichardt’s when he worked its bar.
He also worked in the Gardens for long-time curator Nic Leefe.
His first business was a mini-golf course which he ran in Earnslaw Park for about three summers.
“It was total cash the whole way – I’d go there every morning with my little push mower and I had a great big roller, and then I’d roll it.
“I used to have these holes which I lined with PVC and I had these metal flags made up.”
The council, however, pulled the pin as the town got busier.
Bell’s first store, in the mid-’80s, was Replay Sports, in an old Shotover Street house, where he sold pre-loved gear supplied by friends, on commission.
“I copied Recycled Recreation’s concept at the time.”
He was then approached to open a Recycled Recreation franchise – later, R&R Sports – in the old Mountaineer building on the Shotover/Rees St corner.
“I was doing bikes, new and used, and now the whole town does bikes, kayaks, wetsuits, lifejackets, skis, ski boots, all the ski clothes, all the outdoor clothing. I had a total cash-cow at the time, I didn’t realise how good it was.”
Bell, who eventually gave up his R&R Sports franchise and launched 45 South, says he’d often be rostered only on Monday mornings, and he’d leave staff to run it the rest of the week.
When he exited the Mountaineer, in ’97, due to a demolition clause, he moved to O’Connells – “that just about killed me”.
Friend Rob Lynes, however, recommended he take over his jewellery store, on the Shotover/Rees St corner, where he’s traded for the past 10 years till his lease expired this week.
Bell says the days of small independents are “very much numbered”. To survive, they need to be big and offer unusual or unique products, he says. The takeover by chains is just an international trend, he adds.
Despite ever-increasing rents, Bell says the main problem is the change in visitor mix – “we’ve gone chasing, for some reason, the bulk Chinese market, and that was the most useless group of tourists to me”.
But the whole gloss has come off the resort, he believes – he recently wrote on his shop window, “what happened to the ‘town’ in Queenstown?”
“I think it all went downhill when Eichardt’s went down the tubes [in the ’99 flood] and the central meeting point for locals disappeared under the water, and it’s never recovered.”
Bell’s looking forward to retirement. He’ll do more boating, work on a gold claim he co-owns up the Shotover, and if he “totally dislikes” Queenstown, will spend more time at his wife Nicole’s Riverton home.
Throughout his 32-year retail career, Ian Bell’s kept a carved mermaid at each of his stores’ entrance-ways.
It’s been a good-luck charm, he says, “but she’s starting to let me down a bit”.
It originally came from his ex-parents-in-law as a swap for a pushbike.
While holidaying in Tonga they’d paid for it to be made, but it never arrived.
Bell: “They actually contacted the King of Tonga to find out why they’d paid for something that never arrived.
“The next thing you know, the mermaid arrived.”