Feature writer Lindy Laird and photographer Michael Cunningham accept a social invitation

It's a little bit homely and a little bit community hall.

The Whangārei Seniors Citizens building is also a little like the Tardis — small on the outside but far bigger inside than expected, and caught in a time warp.

Hostess Loraine Austin has invited the Advocate for a look around the club struggling to keep going after being a part of Whangārei's social life for 65 years.

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The elderly, tidy, unassuming building fronts on to Alexander St.

Inside, it boasts a sizeable main activities and dining room, a side room with a full sized pool table and a library, an office, a couple of kitchens and ample toilet facilities.

The decor could do with a spruce-up. On the other hand, it is so retro it might be back in fashion.

It's Tuesday — mahjong day, and several women are playing the game at tables in the main room. A man sits in an armchair reading a newspaper in another part of the room.

There's a half-done 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle on a side table. Indoor bowls used to be huge attraction, but now no one plays.

''They've passed on, a lot of them. Others, when they can't bend down or see any more they don't go to the dogs, they go to the cards,'' Austin says.

On Monday and Wednesday they play 500.

On the third Thursday of every month there's a lunch and a guest speaker, and on other special occasions either a guest speaker or entertainment.

It sounds like business is booming but, sadly, it's not — even though membership is only $25 a year, and a $2 fee for each activity.

''We keep it as low as possible. We're just trying to keep enough money coming in so we can keep going,'' Austin shrugs.

The day we visit, it is quiet as far as numbers go but laughter, chat and the sound of mahjong tiles spilling into the table centre fill the space.

If it were a Wednesday or Friday morning, Austin would be teaching line dancing ''out the back''.

Loraine Austin. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Loraine Austin. Photo / Michael Cunningham

On Monday and Thursday evenings, there would be tango lessons ''out the back''. There used to be five indoor bowling mats in play two days a week ''out the back''.

Occasionally, schools or other groups hold concerts, rehearsals or workshops ''out the back''.

Through doors leading from the clubrooms, the Advocate finally heads "out the back".

We enter a foyer with its front door accessed from the road, down a path beside the club.

From the foyer, doors lead into a fine old hall with a sprung wooden floor — ''lovely for dancing", Austin says; a stage, a serving hatch accessing one of the club's kitchens, and a short corridor to the loos.

This hidden gem can be hired for a reasonable rate, although Austin said there is less demand these days than in the past because it's a strictly no alcohol and no smoking venue.

Like the club itself, the dance hall is somehow slightly out of step.

There used to be hundreds club members at any one time. Today, the Whangārei Senior Citizens & Beneficiaries Association (Inc) has 52 members. (It added ''Beneficiaries'' some years ago to widen its net, and is open to anyone over the age of 50.)

The decline in membership in recent years especially is largely due to more older people moving into retirement villages and rest homes where activities are already on-site, Austin says.

Even so, some members living in those places still love to come back to ''their'' club.

Just not enough of them to stop the club committee from sensing an uncertain future.

As for the past, it's where thousands of Whangārei folk have found company, entertainment, exercise, indoor games, intellectual stimulation, jolly good lunches and morning or afternoon teas — since the club began in 1952.