The first time I walked into Inkt on Victoria Avenue, my heart sank.

Such a beautiful shop, filled with gorgeous things — fountain pens, pots of ink that look like jewels, leather-bound notebooks ...

How was it going to last here in our small town? Surely Whanganui wasn't a big enough market for such a specialist retailer?

I'm happy to have been very wrong.


I visited Pat and Susanne Clay at Inkt last week, coincidentally on the shop's first anniversary. Inkt is worth talking about, for its own sake and because it illustrates a particular business model very suited to Whanganui.

Inkt is the largest independent pen and ink retailer in the country, with 3000 different stock items. It's been selling online since 2010.

So why set up a shop in Whanganui?

When the Clays returned from abroad (Susanne is American, Pat's OE was considerably extended) they ended up in Auckland by default.

After considering options around the country, they chose to make their home in Whanganui two years ago.

It's been a great decision for them. It's small enough to do things easily ("It doesn't take an hour to get across town") but big enough that things happen.

The Clays live on a lifestyle block, with all the space they want but only 10 minutes from the central business district. Proximity is crucial as they ship web orders the same day.

A shop front has been a boon for marketing and engaging with customers. Susanne manages a lively Facebook feed that is based on what's happening at the store.


Whanganui's affordable rents were another enabler.

Inkt is housed in the gloriously refurbished AE Kitchen building and there's a sizeable stockroom at the back of the shop.

It seemed like space they didn't need when the Clays first appraised the site but the extra rent wasn't significant.

As it turns out, they've put it to good use as a stockroom, office and occasionally classroom. It's easy for Pat to respond to online requests and liaise with suppliers in-between greeting customers in the shop.

The majority of Inkt sales still come via its website, although retail sales are growing.

Their stock is not exclusively high-end, which broadens their market. You can spend $500 or even $1500 on a pen here, but you can also choose a fountain or ballpoint pen for a few dollars.

Some new customers arrive in search of an alternative to disposable plastic pens. A ballpoint takes replaceable cartridges of ink, so can be re-fuelled forever (also, having a distinctive pen makes it far less likely you'll lose it …).

Inkt sponsors art events like Artists Open Studios, but there have been other events that spiked sales that couldn't be predicted.

Entomologists who gathered in Whanganui for a conference were keen shoppers at Inkt (and draped with shopping bags from other specialist retailers, Pat noticed.)

Inkt has become a reason to visit Whanganui, he says.

Customers regularly travel from Palmerston North; they also come from Ohakune, Wellington and Taranaki just to shop at Inkt. Others, from as far afield as Dunedin and Auckland, will take advantage of being in Whanganui to stop in to experiment with pens and ink in person.

Inkt cleverly manages to be more than a shop. It serves as a gallery, with a regularly changing exhibition of small works. Often the medium is pen and ink but not always — "We exhibit art we like," says Pat.

Beginners' calligraphy classes are a recent innovation and a sell-out success. Trestles are put up in the back office and a calligraphy teacher brought in from out of town. Susanne has also started a regular "calligraphy and a cuppa" session.

Much fuss has been made of Whanganui's "intelligent community" status and the business or employment opportunities ultrafast fibre enables — remote working for IT professionals or tutoring conducted via video for instance. That's all good.

Inkt isn't so hi-tech. I suspect the Clays don't need lightning-fast internet, but I'm sure it's welcome.

Whanganui otherwise offers them a somewhat old-fashioned package for their business: affordable rents, access to reliable shipping, an easy to navigate business community, and the chance to be part of a distinctive, appealing city centre. Add in the lifestyle factor and it's a winning combination.

Other retailers share this same hybrid model, of a physical presence in the regions servicing a national or international market via the internet.

Kirsty Davidson at Etcetera Fashion and Bridal in Drews Avenue uses Facebook to reach new clients around the country. Last year, the Chronicle reported 70 per cent of her business came from out of town.

Beyond retail, of course, we have highly successful manufacturers based right here and who are selling to the world: safety helmets, glass art, boats and the "weightless export" of software.

Specialists like Inkt contribute to a vibrant, interesting retail streetscape that's great for locals and visitors.

But you can have too much of a good thing — Matakana comes to mind, or Greytown — where it's wall-to-wall pricey boutiques catering to tourists.

We need basic goods and services in the mix, too — laundromats, locksmiths, stationers, banks, bakers and more. We need a bit of everything.

*Rachel Rose is a Whanganui-based writer: