WHEN Brian Bird heads out the door of Villa Clone for the last time, his next step could be to "anywhere and anything".
Not quite a septuagenarian - but close, Bird and partner Ron Maitland are the driving force behind the eclectic retail institution in King Street, Newcastle, that they have now listed for sale.
Bird's enthusiasm and energy belie his years and retirement plans.
"There are things we still want to do, a bit of travel to parts of Europe and a lot of Australia," he says. "We could even buy a Winnebago and run away for six months and reinvent ourselves in a very slow, gentle, quiet way."
That's a big admission for a bloke who's only this year started having two days a week off from the business the pair started 38 years ago.
And that was because he was hypnotised to do so. (Yes, literally, he also turned to hypnotism to quit smoking years ago.)
"I like it, but there is no need for me to be there seven days a week," he says.
That might be so now, but Bird says he and Maitland worked like dogs in the early days when 20 indoor plants dotted around the house was de rigeur.
Bird trained in electronics, but it was an interest in horticulture that started Villa Clone as a weekend nursery at Caldwell Avenue, Dudley, in the mid '70s.
"We used to grow spectacular indoor plants and it got so busy we bought a property at Mount Hutton and constructed a wholesale nursery and then opened Marketown as our retail outlet," Bird says.
About 14 years ago the pair set their sights on a building of their own, eyeing the then-vacant Pizza Hut building in King Street.
The distinctive three-level building was constructed in 1906 as two retail warehouses.
They contacted the owners, Pepsi Cola in the US, about selling. The softdrink giant declined, but it must have planted a seed, as not long after the building was put up for auction.
They bought it, set up Villa Clone on the ground floor, and transformed the top level into a warehouse-style apartment to live in.
What immediately stands out about the store, still, is the unusual range of wares.
Ask Bird where he sources his stock and the answer is "everywhere".
"We have incredible stock and have been around for a long time and because of that we have some really, really good contacts," he says.
"It is a very, very eclectic mix of products which you won't find anywhere."
When pressed, he'll tell you he buys from Morocco and India, and can't tell you how many times he's visited these countries over the decades.
Bird has an incredible knowledge of the products he sells, and the artisans who make them.
"I like India. India has some really inventive products like these bowls," he says as he picks up what looks like a silver one.
"This metal bowl is cast aluminium with the rough casting markings in it.
"They acid wash it, nickel plate it to seal it and it will never tarnish, even near the coast."
The fair trade principle is a priority.
"We do a lot of fair trade product these days," Bird says. "The countries I like to deal with are where you can still get handmade products.
"We do Suzani Boots from Turkey, which are made from a fabric panel that a mother makes her daughter before she weds. It goes with her to her husband's house and it becomes a separation panel for their bedroom.
"Fair trade is where you get involved with people who are actually manufacturing the product, which cuts out some of the middle activity," Bird says.
"There are a couple of women in Sydney who take colour magazines to Kenya and out comes this," he says, pointing to a series of stunning coloured beaded necklaces which you'd swear are ceramic, rather than recycled paper.
Another product he sells - decorated leather bands - are a mixture of a general wholesale product and fair trade. Branded Noosa Amsterdam, it's the brainchild of two Dutch girls who make leather bands, sandals, bags and key rings. "All the leather comes out of Italy but the studs themselves come out of Nepal and Peru and they are all handmade," he says.
"These two girls employ 500 people in these countries."
Cambodia is also a favourite.
"The French and the Japanese are doing huge work with people - after Pol Pot there were no skills left. Now the Cambodians are being retrained in their old skills."
Bird says he's proud the couple have been able to run a business for so long and maintain their trademark standard.
"We haven't let the standard of Villa Clone slip and in today's market that is quite an achievement."
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