"We suddenly found ourselves here." That's how Morna Whiting and Diane Hinds describe the past 20 years at the Old Bus Depot Markets in Kingston.
Twenty years ago, they were a pair of young mothers who wanted to create a weekly market filled with jewellery, artwork, good food and music. The first market day was hectic, filled with friends and family who had been roped in to help, crafty friends who'd been asked to run a stall, and a little group of 30-odd stallholders who included a 10-year-old boy.
Now, the Old Bus Depot Markets is a fixture on the Canberra scene, racking up tourism award after tourism award, and paving the way for other younger markets, such as Hustle and Scout. And it's the hub of a booming Kingston community, where residents pop in for a bit of shopping, a bite to eat from the food stalls and to pick up bread, cheese, and other supplies.
In all that time Whiting and Hinds have been driving business. The idea came to Whiting, who was inspired by a market she visited in Queensland and wanted to re-create a similar experience in Canberra. At the time, the capital's market scene included the Gorman House markets and the Hall markets but Whiting and Hinds wanted to create an "high quality, handmade, indoor, urban type of market".
But it took at least a year before they could turn their vision into a fully formed functioning market. There were long, hard hours. They surveyed the Canberra community to work out what day people would be free to come along and browse a market and settled on Sunday because so many families had working parents and Saturday was traditionally a much busier day with sport and errands and socialising. The other big decision was whether the markets should be held monthly or weekly. They were determined that it should be held every Sunday to provide continuity. "We had a number of people who told us we were crazy," Hinds remembers.
They had to put in an application to lease the building from the ACT government ("there was quite a bit of competition" for it). Then they had to find artists, creators, designers and producers who were willing to set up at the markets. "A lot of people didn't [want to join] because they said, 'We'll see how it goes'," Whiting says. The pair had to go out of their way to collar artists to sell paintings and crafts, designers who made jewellery, clothes and homewares, and producers who wanted to sell fresh food, bread and cheese. One friend who made ceramic painting ("all the go in those days") was roped in to set up a stall. Even Hinds's young son had a role to play. "He did really amazing origami jewellery, paper art, so he had to be interviewed to see if he was suitable. He was 10," she says with a laugh. "And he's now a Qantas pilot so those fine motor skills have gone into something else."
In the days leading up to the first market, they had one of their dads build trestle tables for the stalls, they hung big triangular pink and yellow banners from the ceiling to decorate the room. They couldn't afford a lot of advertising so when Rosemary Follett officially declared the markets open, the doors were thrown open to what Hinds jokingly calls a "rentacrowd". "We called every single person we knew in the world and asked them to come," she says. There were just 36 stalls.
At the end of that September day, Whiting remembers her father wiping down tables while she and Hinds cleaned up behind their rentacrowd. "Diane and I had rubber gloves and we were picking up rubbish and we sat on the bonnet of our car and we thought, 'Well, we've got just one week to get ready to do it all again'." But within just a few months the markets had started to find their feet and they were full all through the Christmas rush.
A few years later Whiting and Hinds were about to lose the fledgling markets home - the Government Printers and the surrounding buildings had to be torn down to make way for the first stage of the Kingston Foreshore development. Then-chief minister Kate Carnell suggested that the derelict bus depot would be a good spot for them to move. A very senior ACT public servant took them through the huge hall, which was in disrepair and filled with pigeons. "We just felt like pinching ourselves, it was a lovely building," Hinds says. They tore down walls and bays where buses had been parked to be washed and opened more space.
Since then there have been thousands of stallholders setting up under the skylights in the roomy bus depot. Many have come and gone, some have stayed for years and years. But Hinds and Whiting have personally interviewed all of them before inviting them to set up. "Our main target group is people of the Canberra region and that's really not strayed," Hinds says. "Morna and I have interviewed everyone at the market. And that flows through the way we promote the market, everything we do we want to do at a high level. We feel we fit right into the art precinct.
"We have come to realise that the bus depot markets are also incubators for small business. It's very nice that [stallholders] try us out, and some stay and some go on to become national."
One of those stallholders was a young man who had just opened a business at Queanbeyan and was selling a line of ceramic fired plates, vases and homewares, all with delicate, natural toned glazes. His name was Brian Tunks and his brand was Bison. Tunks's pieces were eventually picked up by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and the rest is history - Bison, now known as bisonhome, is featured in glossy style magazines and won international acclaim. Tunks now runs his own studio in Pialligo.
It hasn't all been roses and highlights. The worst moments at the markets? "Probably the death of stallholders," says Hinds soberly. "It's been 20 years and you do lose people. We've been to a lot of funerals." But it's a strong community with stallholders and "people are very supportive of each other". But they've been extremely successful. In 2002, they won their first major award, for national tourism. "That was a really fantastic moment. We just felt that we had really come of age," Whiting says.
What's next on the agenda? The ACT government has commissioned a feasibility study to work out how best to create an arts hub around the markets, the Canberra Glassworks and the Fitters Workshop. When that study comes out, Hinds and Whiting will take a close look and try to come up with options for the markets to fit into the planned arts precinct.
"Diane and I both are so grateful to the Canberra community for embracing the Bus Depot Markets and giving it its life and vibrancy every Sunday," she says. "It still surprises us when we come in a little bit late on Sunday and the whole place is still buzzing." Even though it's been 20 years, they haven't got plans to stop, Hinds says. "We might be in our walking frames."
Meet two stallholders
Carol Webster, jewellery maker
How did you get started? Diane and Morna saw some of my work in an art show and they thought it would be suitable for the markets they were proposing to do. So they contacted me and I came along. Up until then I'd been a director in the public service and my youngest daughter had been born with medical problems so I resigned from work.
The first market was scary, to make a commitment to put myself out in public. I borrowed tables for the stall and my husband made me an easel to stand a jewellery board on. At first it was just trial and error... the first couple of winters at the marketwas were very quiet.
The only time I've ever had a break from the markets was when I had cancer. Diane and Morna were fabulous. When I woke up [after surgery], the first bunch of flowers I received was from Diane and Morna. I had about six months off and when I came back everyone was very supportive. They waived my fees. They're not just business people, they're caring individuals.
My children have grown up at the markets. When they were going through high school they used to come and help me, it was their Sunday job. The markets have been my income for the last 20 years and enabled me to stay home with all my children and that's just a positive thing for me. My little girl who was sick has just turned 25 and done a double degree in law and journalism so it's all been worth it.
Brian Loader, cheese and olives
When we first came to the markets there was nothing there [at the Kingston site], only a lot of old sheds and the Government printing office. I've always been in the food industry, I've had restaurants, I was a waiter for many years and I moved into wholesaling cheese. [At the markets] I started with the cheese and then we moved into the olives not long after. Gradually I moved out of wholesaling and for the last few years did the markets.
I enjoy the markets. It's my golf. It's interesting - there's a little bit of the marketing, how things flow and how they don't flow and the reactions of what you do and don't do. We do cheese, salamis, olives and nuts, which come from four different suppliers. We manufacture a lot of the olives ourselves, we buy them off the tree and cure them ourselves.
The worst part of the markets is getting going in the cold. I complain for three months of the year and then I get over it – and I only complain when I'm getting up and about. Once I'm there it's fine.
Are the markets' success down to the location and the busy residential population? I've never really thought about its success but probably it's the best thing about it. It can be more tourist oriented – if the National Gallery of Australia has a big exhibition we can do no wrong. We're the last stop for people after they've gone through the galleries.
I'm going to let my son take over the stall. I'm just going to stand there and look over his shoulder every Sunday.