Waihi's oldest surviving retailer and New Zealand's longest serving shoe store is being restored to its former glory after its original facade was unwittingly unveiled.

Building owner Jan Isles says townsfolk are buzzing at the notion that more of Waihi's precious heritage could be preserved, with comparisons being made to towns like Art Deco Capital Napier.

She committed to restoring the front of McLeay's Shoes in Seddon St after builder Bruce Munro of Baker Construction rang while repairing a rusted roof section.

"He said 'you might want to see this'," says Jan. "It was pretty exciting, a lot of the locals are getting excited too."


Jan, an architectural draughtsperson from Tauranga, says protecting and restoring heritage is costly but important.

"We've become too commercial with shopping malls and we need to value where we came from," she says.

"It will give everyone a bit of a boost. This is certainly a labour of love."

Earnest McLeay came to Waihi to make miner's boots in 1892 and bought the Seddon St store in 1918 from Hallenstein Brothers.

Rich in stories and built completely from native timbers, the store still contains old tools including an anvil used to make boots customised to withstand the acidic conditions underground in Waihi.

Jan is researching the restoration with the help of 85-year-old Waikino-born Ian Robinson, who owned the store with McLeay's granddaughter Heather. Ian and Heather took it over from her father Pat, born Erik Daniel McLeay.

It remains the oldest footwear retailer in New Zealand and was in the hands of the McLeay-Robinsons until it was sold to Christchurch shoe retailer Ken Jackson of Walkable Friends.

"My father-in-law Pat had it 60 years, and before that it was his father's [Earnest]," says Ian. "There used to be shops like this from where the lookout over the mine is all the way to East End Dairy [Maybelle Superette], it was one of those [shops], then they started burning them all down to get the insurance.


"Mr McLeay's brother left Scotland to make boots for the miners in Thames," explains Ian. "When [Earnest] got to Thames, there were too many bootmakers already so he started out in Waihi."

McLeay was an innovator and his boots were tailored to local conditions. Ian kept some of the tools including a "very unusual" sewing machine.

"The tacks they used on the boots only lasted six weeks because of the acid in the mines. He got hardwood and hammered them into the holes and when they got wet, they expanded. It would've been a completely new way to make boots. I've got some of those blocks of wood that he used. Then they used a lot of brass as well," says Ian.

Ian and wife Heather are equally excited at the restoration. Ian did a renovation on the building 50 years ago and says the first renovation was after WWII by well-known builder Des Spiers.

Says Ian: "I had the whole thing changed around because it was a grubby looking shop and had little wee windows you had to peer through and a little skinny door to walk through. It didn't suit me at all."

Jan Isles at the Waihi McLeay's Shoes store. Photo / David Isles
Jan Isles at the Waihi McLeay's Shoes store. Photo / David Isles

Builder Bruce Munro says many Waihi heritage property owners faced a lot of cost because of local government regulations.

"Maybe it's something lottery grants could help with, so people could be allowed to apply for a grant to restore an old building. There doesn't seem to be anything there to help these people."