By Skylar Thoma
IMAGE: The inside of World Travellers Importers & Retail Merchants in Durban. All of the items in the building are for sale unless marked otherwise. (Photo: Skylar Thoma)
Fred van Blerk stands outside World Travellers Importers & Retail Merchants, the antique shop he’s owned for the past 25 years. Calling it a ‘shop’ perhaps does it a disservice: the 600-square-meter warehouse contains Van Blerk’s huge collection of antiques, including furniture, clothing, bicycles, and even the occasional foosball table.
The extreme variety sets World Travellers apart, particularly because there isn’t a big antique scene in Durban. According to Van Blerk, in a “normal” antique shop, “you won’t see the big heavy pieces. You’ll see more funky stuff. But what I’m trying to show people is how to put different stuff together and not have that stifled antique feeling about it”.
Van Blerk’s love of collecting stretches back to his childhood. He found himself drawn to unusual items that date back centuries: “I really like stuff from the beginning of the Ottoman Period and the Persian movement through Egypt.”
But World Travellers is not his main job: Van Blerk also works as an interior architect. His professional work is exclusively modern, so many of his clients are surprised he also loves antiques. “They come to me to get that super modern, high tech interior”, he says. “That’s what I do [for a living], and it comes easy to me. If someone came to me and asked to do a period interior with stuff like this, it would be super easy. Because I love it, so I know how to put it together.”
In van Blerk’s office hangs a chandelier made by the same person who decorated the Palace of Versailles. He’s had offers to sell this item and many others for thousands of Rand, but he almost always declines. “I’m not thinking when I’m buying something, ‘oh, I could make so much money off this, so I’m going to sell it.’ Instead, I’m the reluctant seller. Every time Nico [his employee] comes to me and says, ‘oh, I sold this’, I go, ‘my god, I didn’t want that to sell!’” Instead, Van Blerk just wants to enjoy having the pieces he’s collected over the years. And by opening the store as a gallery and hosting music events for 100 people or more, he tries to share that joy with others as well.
But Van Blerk is looking for something more. Perhaps if he were to move somewhere else – maybe to Portugal – he might find a welcome for the treasures he has collected, he says. Perhaps Durban is not where he belongs.
Or perhaps it’s a bigger question, he admits: perhaps he might have made other choices in life.
“I feel like I missed my true profession. I would’ve liked to have been an archaeologist. I would rather discover that one little thing in my lifetime, that one little thing that is so precious and unusual, than having all this here.”
For now, Van Blerk continues to look for those items in his very own store.