Business works wonders for stayer

Joan McClelland has worked in the same place for 75 years, writes Suzanne Carbone.

Joan McClelland has worked in the same place for 75 years, writes Suzanne Carbone.

JOAN McClelland works Monday to Friday, drives to work and rarely takes a day off. So, what's unusual about this routine?

Joan is the spirited 98-year-old owner of the Joshua McClelland Print Room in Collins Street, the business started by her late husband Joshua in 1927.

It began as Joshua McClelland Antiques in Little Collins Street and after his sudden death from a stroke in 1956, the business specialised in his passions, Chinese porcelain and Australian prints and paintings.

You can find Joan working from 10am to 5pm with daughter Patricia Williams in the quaint fifth-floor gallery that has a balcony and view of the Old Treasury Building.

"I drive myself in," says Joan. "We both have car parking in the building." Things were different in the early days when she drove Joshua in, as he didn't drive. "We parked outside the shop and left it outside all day." Unless someone can better her record of working in one place for 75 years, Joan is the oldest employee in the City of Melbourne. The gallery is the longest-running business and has been recognised in the Lord Mayor's Commendations, an initiative started in 2005 to acknowledge small businesses and family-run operations.

Joan, a former journalist for The Argus, began working with her husband after they married in 1936 and he introduced her to Chinese porcelain, which became her great interest. So far, retirement hasn't been on the agenda. "I get bored when I stay at home," she says.

Another daughter, Philippa, is returning to Melbourne next year and Joan believes it could be time for her and Patricia to take over. But Patricia quips: "When she's 100, she's allowed to retire."

A regular sight at auctions around town, Joan outstays the young 'uns and remains until the last fall of the hammer. Says Patricia: "I'm never allowed to take her home earlier." Joan explains: "We need to stay until the bitter end to see what's happening."

Joan has watched the prices of Chinese pieces skyrocket in the past year, noting buyers come from Hong Kong for the auctions. "They have money and want to spend it."

Blessed with excellent health and a sharp mind, Joan looks decades younger and has a terrific sense of humour. She mentions her dog in the other room and I'm expecting to hear barking, but it's a Chinese Foo dog or guardian lion that looks after her. She suggests a photo with the dog, saying: "It makes me look prettier."

For another shot, she tosses up wearing her glasses, saying: "I look more scholarly with glasses."

Joan recalls her annual buying trips to London in winter to snap up Australian prints and Chinese porcelain, but there's no travel these days. "Airports defeat me now." She once shipped back an oak chest with all the drawers filled with porcelain.

Throughout her career, Joan's knowledge has been in demand, and when London auction house Christie's opened in Melbourne, she ran the first office. Another job was down at the docks, helping customs verify that antiques were 100 years old, as the owners were exempt from paying duty.

One of the gallery's notable clients was governor-general Paul Hasluck, a collector of early Western Australian prints he hailed from the west. When he arrived at the gallery, Joan expected an entourage, but Hasluck explained that he walked over from his hotel.

Joan says "the great collector" was the late accountant John Kenny, whose house was so crammed with furniture, silver, paintings and glass cases with Chinese porcelain that "you couldn't move".

At home, Joan is surrounded by books spanning art, history, catalogues, reference books and fiction. "I love reading. I have an enormous bookshelf that's going to fall on my head very soon."

Joan's other role is as a barometer of changes along Collins Street. Looking out the window, she marvels that the plane trees have "never looked better" because of all the rain.

Here's another observation: "Collins Street was full of doctors, and a lot of them were collectors. Now I don't have a single doctor who is a collector." If any doctors are in the market for Chinese porcelain, Joan is ready to do business.

The Joshua McClelland Print Room is on the fifth floor at 15 Collins Street, city.

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