Queensland Business Magazine

Camp Hill Antique Centre and TART Cafe owners Sarah Jane Walsh and Paul Butler. Picture: Liam Kidston
Camp Hill Antique Centre and TART Cafe owners Sarah Jane Walsh and Paul Butler. Picture: Liam Kidston

Camp Hill Antique Centre attract 5000 visitors each week to eat, shop or attend a workshop

When Sarah Jane Walsh took a $1 million lease on a warehouse-sized space to sell second-hand film props and furniture in the middle of the Global Financial Crisis, the antique dealers of Brisbane laughed at her.

Eight years on she now has about 5000 people visiting each week either to eat, shop or attend a workshop and turned over $4 million in sales last year.

“I guess I am fairly young for an antique dealer and when we opened at the Gabba (Woolloongabba in Brisbane’s inner east) I was only 30 so they said, ‘oh, she doesn’t know anything’.

“And you know what, I didn’t. But I had worked hard in my previous job and I knew this was what I wanted to do.

“I told my husband Paul I was just going to open a small antique shop but it turned out to be the size of Bunnings with a three-year lease for over $1 million.

“I had worked in the film industry for 10 years and I was hoarding props at the end of the films and selling second-hand goods at markets so when it came to open my own business that’s what I knew.”

Walsh and husband Paul Butler are now no longer lease holders – having moved from Woolloongabba last year to nearby Camp Hill after buying the Planet Cinema on Old Cleveland Road for $2.31m and spending another $1.3m to completely remodel the space.

It has proved to be a wise financial move – an insight into the costs of leasing in hot spot urban renewal areas like Woolloongabba can be gleaned from the fact they now pay less by way of mortgage repayments than they did in rent.

It is also a dream come true for Walsh who had a chance to renovate the former cinema in line with her passions for yesteryear.

Smitten with the final product, Walsh and Butler are also just surfacing from what has been an intense 18 months of planning and conservation of old features plus major construction to make the former church and theatre space fit for purpose. It would have been cheaper to knock it down and build a new place but that would not have been very “vintage”.

Walsh says her customers come for the full retro experience and velvet ropes, 1950s wall murals and Elvis records playing in the background are part of the appeal.

1960's cat figurine for sale at Camp Hill Antique Centre.

But practically the fit-out also allowed them to build an underground car park, put in a lift and expand the cafe to include footpath dining.

And of course, a name change from Woolloongabba Antique Centre to Camp Hill Antique Centre and TART Cafe.

The pragmatic renaming is indicative of Walsh’s approach to the business backed by Butler’s ability to build and manage the project and seek finance off the back of their success at the previous site.

“We have the most supportive bank manager going I think,” says Butler, who works separately in his film production business as well as at the antique centre.

“Because the site had no real value as a commercial operation and the sloping floor meant it couldn’t be leased, we had some difficulties in getting it valued and had to co-join the valuation of the business to the building in order to get finance,” he says.

Old radio for sale at Camp Hill Antique Centre.

The centre has a diverse range of income streams with about 70 vendors operating from the space ranging from hobbyists to those who import containers of items from overseas. All pay rent and commission on sales in exchange for Walsh carrying all the labour and utility costs, managing all transactions with customers and providing advertising and marketing.

“The dealers here are basically small businesses themselves and we have 70 small businesses under one roof bringing in new goods daily so it’s a labour intensive operation,” Walsh says.

“The dealers pay rent for the space and commission to us based on sales so it’s important they make money and to do that we do a lot of work around displaying stock and having items that sell.”

Antiques have trends like other retail spheres with buyers now clamouring for mid-century sideboards while a few years ago church pews and kitchen hutches were all the rage, she says.

Trader Anna Hertzog has been in the centre for about five years, saying it offers a physical presence for her online G

oldilocks Vintage shop without all the costs.

Phrenology model for sale at Camp Hill Antique Centre.

“If you work it right it is worthwhile and being under the centre means I don’t have to be in a shop myself everyday which gives me the time to source items,” she says.

Equal to the antiques is the retro-themed diner which is licensed and open everyday, indeed the whole centre is only closed five days of the year.

“Even then people are annoyed when we aren’t open,” Walsh says. “When it rains we have huge days. It’s the type of business where people dedicate time, they factor in having something to eat and looking around.”

The couple has also had two sons Elvis, 5, and Hemingway, 3, and baby daughter Sinatra, 1, while building the business and both their parents are involved either caring for the children or working at the centre.

It’s a business model that appeals to a wide variety of people, according to Walsh who works the floor every day and as yet can’t see handing it over to a manager.

“We get a lot of groups of mothers, daughters and granddaughters spending a morning here,” she says. “We find a lot of purchases are nostalgic.