WHEN a handful of Newcastle antique dealers were searching for a retail space two decades ago and approached businessman and Shoey's supermarket chain founder Richard Owens, little did they know they had chosen the ideal benefactor.
The dealers had been based at the Beaumont Street Antique Centre until it was damaged in the Newcastle earthquake, and by 1993, when the building was put up for sale, they were desperate for a new home.
Enter Owens, whose love for collectables was nurtured by his late father, George.
"We'd look in the newspaper and find out where the old sales were and buy old tins and signs and things . . . and must have done that over 30 or 40 years," says the executive chairman of R.O.I. Group, with a just a hint of buyer's remorse.
Owens was quick to offer his property at 29 Centenary Road - a former Dalgety wool storage warehouse and Shoey's warehouse - for lease to the dealers. [The property is now owned by Sydney cosmetic surgeon and hotelier Jerry Schwartz].
Owens and his father sourced display cabinets at a Sydney auction and helped the dealers tidy up the old brick warehouse before it opened as Centenary Antique Centre with 14 shops in March 1993. From that moment, father and son also found a home for their own much-loved antique collection in the centre's quirky museum, which is cared for today by 94-year-old Harold Murray, a former Owens employee who dons a grocer's apron and answers questions from the public about the curios.
When it became evident that the dealers, though adept at running their own stalls, needed a hand to run the centre, Richard Owens again stepped in, hiring a manager, finessing the business model and installing a point of sale.
Owens' long-time staffer, Kathryn Young, a former manager of the centre who now heads up the leasing and managing of R.O.I Group properties as well as overseeing the antiques hub, recalls how the small centre quickly took on a life of its own.
"Initially we just had hessian hanging down to block off the unused part of the warehouse, and we kept moving it until eventually it was all gone," she says.
With trains rattling behind the centre, she also remembers all the china slowly moving forward on the shelf, and "every now and then you'd hear a crash and hope it wasn't an expensive piece".
This month Centenary Antique Centre is celebrating its 20-year anniversary by offering discounts of up to 30 per cent on selected items.
Not that there's any reason to encourage its loyal clientele - famous fans include Marcia Hines, Daniel Johns, John Paul Young and Daryl Braithwaite, while collectors travel from all over Australia to the centre, one of the largest in the country.
For Owens, the centre is a rare and special place, and not just for its treasure trove of furniture, fashion, china and Australiana items.
"The dealers, well, they are a race of their own," he says of the enthusiastic, friendly and often idiosyncratic part-time staffers, most of them retirees.
"They are passionate about what they sell and collect, about everything in their shop - sometimes they are disappointed that someone will buy some of their wares because they are so attached to them."
Though George Owens played an active role in the centre in the early years, Richard Owens and Young have popped in less in recent years, confident that operations are running smoothly.
Owens believes the sheer size of the centre's collection and its quirky charm will keep drawing in punters.
"I think it will survive and be sustainable, it is an important centre in collecting and in fashions, which quite often repeat themselves," he says.
Admitting to having a "good warm feeling" for the role he has played in it all, Owens is pushed to name his favourite piece in the museum, but, given his "love affair" with horse-drawn vehicles, he is fond of the 19th-century Peugeot brougham.
Of late, other items in his personal collection have provided simple pleasures.
"I had old long-playing records at home in a room downstairs and I never used to go there, so I brought them upstairs. I now have a record player in my office and of a weekend I'll sit there and play my LP records - everything from classical and opera to jazz and musical theatre."