When Gerald Gonske and his family opened Curiosity Cove, they put out a guest book for customers to sign.
The first signature was from a little girl visiting with her family from Sweden.
“The little girl had just learned to print and she asked her parents if she could sign in the book,” Gonske said. “The very first, a little girl from Sweden.”
After 30 years selling antique, retro and vintage items, Gonske is hanging up the “closed” sign for good Saturday (Sept. 1).
He’ll have a little stock left over – most of it is being discounted and cleared out this week – but lots of memories.
Gonske and his parents opened Curiosity Cove in Harewood Mall – now University Village – in 1982 in the midst of a major economic recession.
“In ’82 when Curiosity Cove started we had 700 bucks,” Gonske said. “It was the hardest time because families were going bankrupt.”
Most of the stock came from Victoria for the first six years the store was in business. What didn’t sell was taken back to Victoria and auctioned.
“Times were tough, but we made a go of it,” he said. “Harewood Mall gave us a roof over our heads and access for people to find us.”
Even with most of the stock gone there are still plenty of items lying around with tales to be told about them – even the store’s sign.
“We had a guy come by one day and he was a bit of a character – with a hat and mustache and his glasses on the end of his nose – and he said, ‘Huh, you know you’ve got a nice name, but you could have a better sign,’” Gonske said.
They started swapping ideas. Gonske suggested a design resembling graphics on old tobacco tin lids, maybe with a sailing ship on it. It turned out the man loved sailing ships, even built miniatures in bottles. He was an artist, too, and sketched out the store’s original sign in chalk and crayon.
“So he took out his paints and painted that on the glass (window) in the mall,” Gonske said.
One day years later, Gonske took the design into Eye Mean Graphics.
“They said, ‘Well that’s a nice one, but we could do better,’” he said.
Gonske, fond of the original design, ultimately adopted the new graphic.
“Both have merit,” he said.
The Harewood store closed in 1988, but reopened at 59 Nicol St. in 1989 and has been there ever since.
“We went from 2,400 square feet to about 900, but we liked the fact that we were now close to town,” Gonske said.
His mother, Helen, worked there until a few days before she died at 82 in March 2011.
Photos and newspaper clippings around the shop hold more history. One clipping shows Gonske with a Curiosity Cove float he entered in the 2008 Empire Days Parade near a colour photo of a 1920s-era lemon pie safe he sold to a couple for $60. They owned an auto painting business, restored the safe’s finish and sold it to a man who owned an island. They gave Gonske the photo of the restored safe, but never told him how much they sold it for and he didn’t want to know. He was just happy they paid him the visit.
A letter from the Nanaimo District Museum thanks him for antique tools he supplied for a display.
Customers often asked for images or symbols of Nanaimo.
“People would ask, ‘What do you have that’s a symbol of Nanaimo?’” Gonske said. “I couldn’t have anything better than a Rumming’s bottle.”
Around 1900, the W.E. Rumming’s company made pop sold in heavy, glass bottles bearing a design of miners’ tools – a pick and shovel.
Gonske said he was told Robert Dunsmuir might have had some say in the design but there’s no solid information that’s how it came about.
Gonske, 59, is closing because of ongoing health issues stemming from a heart attack he suffered in March and market conditions. The business generates enough to pay the rent and operating expenses, but little income for Gonske.
“Over the years things went up and now things have gone down,” he said. “Not everything is worth money.”
He said his decision to leave the business is gut-wrenching, partly because of the relationships he built with loyal customers over the years and friends who stepped in to help when times were tough and he needed them most.
One woman with financial means even covered his expenses – no questions asked – when he was in hospital and couldn’t work.
“I went to write her a cheque and she said, ‘What are you doing?’” Gonske said. “It was her 83rd birthday and it was her gift to me. I cried.”
Gonske isn’t certain what he will do next, but said he won’t stray far from the antiques business. Possibilities include dabbling in online sales, but he is also secretary of the The Diggers Club – B.C.’s oldest antique club – and a member of the Canadian Personal Property Appraisers Group.