When Tom Sykes and Sian Overfield came to Whanganui looking for a building in which to start their second-hand bookshop, a derelict building in Ridgway St immediately appealed.

Empty for two years when they spotted it in 2012, the building had formerly been the home of the Hong Kong Restaurant.

"The real estate agent told us there was a lot of interest," Tom said. "But we had problems opening the door due to the mail piled up on the other side, and there was a tap that had split so there was water cascading down the wall. So we thought the building might be in our price range - and it was."

Sian said walking into the building for the first time was a surreal experience.


"All the tables were laid in the restaurant like they were waiting for guests to arrive. The calendar was still on the wall. It was like [the previous owners] had just walked out, locked the door and left it."

Tom, originally from England, and Sian, from Wales, were attracted to Whanganui from the West Coast by the city's historic buildings. The couple met at a yoga ashram in the South Island and were living what Sian called "a cushy life" on the West Coast, when Tom had the idea of opening a bookshop.

"So we thought about all the places we knew in New Zealand - both of us are quite well-travelled - and Tom said that he remembered this place that he visited once with his parents. He said it was a really pretty little town. He suggested we go for a road trip. And that was when we came to Whanganui," Sian said.

It's hard not to be drawn in by Tom and Sian's bookshop, The Flying Monkey, especially if you love books. Located in Ridgway St down the road from the Rutland Arms Inn, the shop sells second-hand books. It's a shop that invites you to come in, sit down and pick up a book.

But it's not just the books and the cosy surroundings that appeal. It's the history of the 1901 building which Tom and Sian have done their best to honour.

Tom said both he and Sian immediately saw the potential in the building: "It had a good feel to it - it was the smell that was the problem," Tom said.

The building had cupboards and freezers full of food that had been left behind. After they bought the building, Tom, a nurse, and Sian, a teacher, spent the first month simply getting rid of the rats.

"It was a massive amount of work to clean the place up. We didn't know just how much work would be involved. We thought we'd just jump in and see what happened," Tom said.

* * * *

Over the past few years Tom and Sian have been gradually piecing together the history of their building.

It was built in 1901 by a local saddler. In 1906 it became an oyster cafe, which the couple discovered from a sign they found in the building. From 1919 it was a solicitor's office; and it has also been a menswear and haberdashery shop, a Dutch cafe and tearooms, and a fish and chip shop. Then in the 1980s it became Hong Kong Chinese restaurant and takeaway.

Tom and Sian have left the Hong Kong Restaurant sign outside the building, and the window of the same design is now displayed on the staircase. Sian said these are tributes to that part of the building's history.

"The history of the building was really interesting to us," Sian said. "You can really feel the history here, I think - especially the Hong Kong. A lot of Whanganui people still remember the Hong Kong. We often get people come in and tell us about some special celebration they had at the Hong Kong.

"Occasionally someone will come into the shop with a really personal connection - they used to own the fish and chip shop, or they're related to the woman who owned the Dutch cafe."

They even had a visitor who was related to the saddler who built the building.

"She told us she had a photo of the building when it was a saddlery business, so we're really hoping to see that photo one day," Sian said.

* * * *

It took Tom and Sian three years to restore the building and open The Flying Monkey.

Although they don't know exactly how much the restoration cost, the couple believe the money they put into it was the same as a re-build.

"The council permission and planning process was massive - and in the middle of it we had a baby," Sian said.

The work itself was huge. One of the walls adjoining the building next door was on the point of collapse and had to be completely re-built. All the wall linings have been stripped back and re-gibbed.

"We were in a bit of a grey area in terms of earthquake strengthening, so we decided to do the job properly. We've managed to get it up to 67 per cent of earthquake code, just to be certain," Tom said.

"I think it's good that it's done right and the regulations are there for a reason; but it can be a real struggle with old buildings. These buildings were just not built to the standard of modern buildings."

Sian said there were times when she was tempted to walk away from the project.

"It was a very steep learning curve for us. I have my job, Tom has his job, we had a baby in the middle of it all - and neither of us had done anything like this before."

"If we did it again, we know have the knowledge to make sure it was done in a much shorter time and in a much more economic way," Tom said. "We would have been able to shave of 10 to 15 per cent off the budget if we knew then what we know now."

* * * *

The Flying Monkey opened on December 1, 2014.

"When it opened, it was a breath for us. It was a chance to sit back and realised what we'd achieved," Sian said.

The shelves were hand made by Tom, and the books were meticulously catalogued by Sian. In the main downstairs area are the non-fiction, children's, science-fiction and classics books. Upstairs - in what was once a three-room living area - is the living-room-like fiction section, with views over Ridgway St. The original upstairs fireplace was taken out of the crumbling wall and now sits prominently on the opposite wall, for decoration only.

The Flying Monkey has 10,000-15,000 books for sale, with many picked up at book sales.

Both came into the project as booklovers. Tom admits he's not as keen on books as he once was; but for Sian they're still a "thrill".

"Someone will come into the shop with a box of books and ask if we can take it off their hands. And I still love the possibility of what might be in that box.

"And it's wonderful to see our son growing up surrounded by books."

At the moment, The Flying Monkey is open only on Saturdays, as both Tom and Sian have other work. And while it's not making a profit, it is making enough money to pay for the building and keep the couple out of the red.

Tom and Sian would like to expand or develop The Flying Monkey in some way, but they haven't yet decided what form that might take.

"The bookshop is still on its journey," Sian said. "I've dreamed about having a yoga space here, having a therapy space, a coffee machine. As long as the building continues to pay for itself we can be a little relaxed about what we're going to do next and not feel pressure to change things.

"Whatever we decide about the bookshop's future, we can always say, 'Wow. We did it'."

+After a holiday break, The Flying Monkey re-opens for business on November 12.