The sense of community in regional and rural Australia is stronger, more connected and more welcoming than its capital city counterparts. There. We’ve said it. And what Boaz Keeda and his team are doing at Thora Store underscores this tenet.
I’ve arrived a little early for our interview so I ordered a coffee and took a seat in the sun at the store’s terrace café. Watching him as he makes his way to my table it’s clear he has an art for congenial customer engagement and this, he later tells me, often results in the exchange of ideas, not only in the context of the store but for the Bellingen Shire at large – something that gets Boaz very excited. This self-confessed ideas-man says, “I love looking at the big picture, especially when at its hub there’s community-engagement for how our region can be enjoyed by all.”
Boaz Keeda and his wife, Screenwriter Shelley Birse, both grew up in regional towns, Boaz in the small desert town of Arad in southern Israel, and Shelley in Toronto on the NSW central coast. So despite career callings, settling down to raise a family in the big smoke never really held any appeal. Thus, in around 2006 Kalang became their home, and while Boaz says he’s never looked back, we wondered how his journey brought him here.
Before sinking his teeth into the world of café & store ownership, Boaz spent four and a half years in the Israeli Defence Force, rising to 2nd Lieutenant, all the while working in one of the world’s hotspots – the occupied territories of The West Bank and Gaza Strip. “Up to the time of the Oslo Accords I was ‘on the ground, copping it’, as they say.” Boaz pauses briefly, the look on his face telling me ‘there’s nothing more to be said of that’. And he shifts his view. “It gives you a tremendous amount of perspective – makes you realise how lucky we are in this amazing part of the world. Living in the Bellingen Shire is the cherry on the top. I’ve lived in many countries and honestly never felt at home until I arrived here. I get quite emotional about it actually!”
“Since moving here I’ve been fortunate to be able to work from home, running about 20 cafes in corporate partnerships and licensed franchise support arrangements in locations including the Hunter Valley, Sydney, Brisbane and up to Mackay Queensland.”
Then when Thora Store became available in 2018 Boaz quite simply saw it as a wonderful opportunity to create a special place for the Thora Valley community.
“We’ve been so fortunate to have Kat Kastner, store manager, and our wonderful staff who have cultivated a lovely, natural interaction with customers.” The premise of the business was to develop it into a space that provided customers with what they want. From the outset he would ask everyone who came in what they wanted to see there. He then put power to the ground on many of those suggestions. “I mean we really are only here by the grace of the community. We’re thrilled to be able to employ seven people and we have so many exciting plans. It’s only limited by what the community brings to it.”
Some of those ideas that have Boaz shuffling forward in his chair in anticipation are: a beer garden, perhaps a wedding venue, maybe a couple of cabins, a music room for open jam sessions, community movie nights… “We see the Thora Store as a platform for whatever the community wants. When we buy into an idea posed by the community there’s naturally much stronger support for that idea. One person can do a certain amount. But many people together can achieve great things.”
Boaz’s enthusiasm extends way beyond the borders of the Thora Store.
Being a great believer in connectedness and collaboration his mantra is: The more we work in unison, the more we attract the people we want to have here – from those who come to holiday here to those who want to call this place home.
He shared some of his Shire-wide ideas around tourism, community art & cultural spaces. In the tourism space he’s floating the idea of an annual event akin to Sydney’s Sculpture by the Sea, with sculptures and art installations commencing at the river headwaters, following the Waterfall Way and concluding in Urunga. “There may be an annual theme that weaves through each sculpture, tells a story. It could be broken into stages with Dorrigo, Bellingen and Urunga being the breakpoints. And it could incorporate a kids’ treasure map/quiz with redeemable rewards in each town. There are grant submissions that could facilitate ideas like this.”
Boaz is also garnering ideas for the old Joinery in Bellingen which he owns. It’s a big rustic warehouse space, currently a blank slate that he’s nicknamed “The Incubator”. He’s keen to hear community driven ideas, adding that he’d “love to see it utilised for the community as an NFP. When you engage the community it’s easier to get things done, there’s genuine, enthusiastic buy in.”
Is there any particular group of people in the Bellingen Shire you’d love to see engaging in an ideas forum?
“Everyone! This place is a sleeping giant of brilliant people. How do we harvest all this experience and intellectual property to benefit our Shire? It’s so exciting and the more we bring people together to work on these, the better it will be for all.”
“Critical to any way forward is collaboration, connectedness and community engagement. The more we engage and the more transparent we are, I believe the more business we can create here, the more people we can employ and the better it will be for our community as a whole.”
Speaking of business we wondered how much the pandemic disruption has impacted or distracted Boaz and his team.
“Covid has meant I’ve worked doubly hard for half as much through the lockdown. We were ready to open our terrace café here, then had to rope it off. For reasons we completely understood, some of our staff chose not to come in.
But we also found ourselves in an interesting position. Just before the pandemic struck, the Dorrigo Service Station closed. This made us the only fuel stop between Bellingen and Ebor and it created a spike. In the weeks following, we put on more staff, increased our stock levels and doubled our fuel deliveries. People needed food and fuel. I suppose you could say we were in a very fortunate position. What was interesting was observing the locals’ response to our efforts to encourage them to stay home by offering home-delivery service. But they kept coming in! I think they missed that little bit of community connection. So we put the disposable gloves at the bowsers, a hand wash station at the store entrance and set up distancing measures inside.”
What will the Bellingen Shire look like to you once we emerge from this period?
“I hope that if we can remember our own experiences of what this has been like and what impact it has had on our community as a whole, then maybe some significant changes can come out of this. Perhaps we could also remember what we’ve heard from other regions about how they’ve only now been able to hear birds, see the return of fish, enjoy clearer skies… This is a good reminder of how lucky we already are on that score. If it’s struck a cord deep within us, then maybe we could see some beneficial changes through the power of the vote.
Looking forward we could also remember that there’s no such thing as failure – just feedback, and if something’s not working we just find a different way. That’s where a good team comes into play, and we can get there.”
Although the ethos of supporting local & buying local is being trumpeted incessantly, Boaz sees it as a two-way street. “I support the community the way it supports me and that’s doing our best at the store to buy from local farms. It requires more paperwork, more back end work but it’s the price we need to pay to support local. Buying local means the money circulates 3-4 times inside the community – isn’t that a compelling statistic?”
“At Thora Store we are here by the grace of our community and this remains at the core of what we do.”