Beeswax and Tall Tales by Jane Crowley and Athol Salter

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

Imagine a time when furniture came already built. A time before flatpack and online retail. When you could see and touch solid wood and dovetail joints. Imagine a time when banks had branches in country towns. And there was a human bank manager who could sit you down in a comfortable chair to negotiate your overdraft.

Athol Salter lived through this time as a young man and, with a couple of modern touches, is still living it. For this is the world of antiques – a foreign concept to many IKEAphiles – a world where old things are sometimes worth more than new, but there are still incredible bargains to be had. And not a piece of chipboard or MDF to be seen.

Despite his daughter Jane also following him into the same profession, in this book she is content to compose stories related by her father. They are gentle narratives and although being as recent as the 1970s and 1980s, evoke a simpler time, long past.  Her father is presented to us as a true gentlemen, one prepared to offer fair prices and go the extra distance to help a stranger in difficulties.

Athol ran an antiques business in the regional city of Wagga Wagga NSW and later added a store in Hall, near Canberra.  Most of the anecdotes are about his travels to procure antiques for sale, to England, Melbourne or locally.

The most engaging stories are often local, where Athol is sufficiently trusted to enter vacant homes and appraise the contents. The homes sometimes have a Marie Celeste quality  – places locked in time, where the signs of occupancy are palpable, but the occupants have gone. There is a certain intimacy as Athol can’t help but speculate about past lives reconstructed from abandoned, but once cherished, possessions. “I let out a sigh. Poor old chap. After a whole life, this was all that was left. A few drawers of clothing, a couple of bits of furniture, a top hat and a socially challenged cockatoo” [p61].

Although Jane’s voice remains unheard, there is a tenderness towards her father that is reflected in the writing. He is the kind of person many of us would love to meet; exuding an honest Aussie charm that seems to win over almost everyone he meets. And the few obnoxious encounters are at least treated politely.  Despite his obvious success, he is modest and self-effacing, with a keen interest in people and their treasures.

The stories have an earthy reality (carrying a wardrobe over a dead pig is not for the faint-hearted), but the usual problems of running a small business are overlooked in favour of the ups and downs of treasure hunting. Athol is so engaged with his life that he can’t help but sprinkle some charm dust on us all.

Jane Crowley has worked side by side with her father Athol for most of her life. Her career in the world of antiques began in earnest at the age of eight, when she restored and sold her first piece, an Australian cedar clerk’s desk. Since then, the two have attended auctions, cleared estates and sold more pieces of furniture than they could count.

Beeswax and Tall Tales

(August 2023)

by Jane Crowley and Athol Salter

Ventura Press

ISBN: 978-1-922923-03-5

$32.99 (RRP Paperback); 273pp

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