Serendipity and fate bring tinsel to Toodyay
By Ieva Tomsons
SEAN Byron (51), a serious business man who believes in ghosts, serendipity and fate, has created a Christmas emporium that draws thousands of tourists to Toodyay each year.
Visitors to Richard’s Christmas 360 enter a winter wonderland where 75,000 artfully arranged items twinkle under nearly 6000 fairy lights installed by Sean who started his professional life as an electrician.
“I always wanted to be an electrician and to know how things work.”
At age four he was dismantling power points with a knife and was happier playing with toasters and extension cords than toys.READ MORE
Born in Midland, Sean moved with his parents to Christchurch, New Zealand when he was five.
Formal schooling held little appeal for Sean’s practical nature and he left school at 15 to go into a partnership in a pet shop with a mate from school.
“School was holding me back and my friend’s brother organised a loan for $2000 and the shop went quite well.”
Around this time Sean’s parents divorced and after a year running the pet shop he returned to Perth with his mother Val Byron who now lives in Toodyay and helps out in the shop.
At 16, without any substantial school marks, Sean was one of 60 selected from 1800 electrical pre-apprenticeship aspirants.
He was named Electrical Apprentice of the Year at Fremantle TAFE and started working at 17 for the Fremantle Port Authority.
“It was during the America’s Cup days and we turned the hockey stadium into a media centre and there were the Tall Ships and QE2 visits – it was interesting work.”
After three years at the Port Authority he joined his best friend Ed Swarts in Meekathara to work for Ed’s boss who promised Sean a new car.
Six months later, with no sign of a car, he quit and was heading back to Perth when his boss appeared in Wubin with a cheque for a new van and an offer for Sean to run a company in Mount Magnet.
“I was 21 and running a company with 35 employees for three years, working seven days a week and servicing Homeswest housing and school properties.
There was a great sense of community and that was where I saw my first computer.”
Sean changed tack when he returned to Perth and worked for orbital engine inventor Ralph Sarich in the incoming goods department data entry unit but after a couple of years wanted to work outside again so returned to hands-on electrical work for Tennacon.
At 27 Sean met his “soul mate” Dr Richard Walkey who had a practice in Toodyay.
“It was a public holiday and I decided to stop work at lunchtime and join some friends.
If I hadn’t stopped working, I never would have met Richard.
“Richard had been in Toodyay three years and after four weeks of dating he asked me to meet his parents – that was 25 years ago.”
The couple both worked extremely long hours, Sean servicing air conditioners in the Hills and Avon Valley and Richard treating a growing number of patients in the town’s new medical centre.
They formed a company in 2003 to run the surgery with a focus on patients and invested a lot in refurbishing and updating medical equipment.
“We were very concerned about the Millennium Bug and the impact it would have on patient records but nothing happened,” laughs Sean.
Twice a year they would travel overseas where they were always on the lookout for Christmas decorations which they used in elaborate displays at the medical centre.
In 2001 Sean and Richard bought the first of numerous investment properties that they renovated and rented out for a decade.
“We did everything ourselves, except the tiling.
Richard liked to get on the jack hammer and take up the tiles and one of our renovated properties was featured in The West Australian newspaper.”
In the 2009 Toodyay fire which destroyed 38 houses, the couple defended their home and Sean was at the forefront of organising a huge Christmas street party the following year to mark a new beginning for the town.
The town may have been recovering in 2011 but Richard and Sean could not resolve an acrimonious battle with Toodyay Shire Council and relocated to Wongan Hills to run the town’s medical centre.
“They did everything possible to get us to move to Wongan; you’ve got five dogs – no problem, here’s the licence and there’s your five-bedroom house.
They were great.”
Sean started his first small Christmas shop in Wongan Hills and when Richard was diagnosed with cancer in late 2012 he suggested Sean start up a Christmas shop in Toodyay.
They bought the abandoned IGA supermarket in Stirling Terrace where Richard hoped to help with pricing the stock for a few hours a day.
Richard died on 14 April 2013, the day same-sex marriage was legalised in New Zealand.
He never saw the magical emporium that Sean named in his honour and unveiled on their anniversary date that year.
Three years after Richard died Sean met his current partner Simon Kohler who had also lost his partner to a sudden death.
When Richard’s Christmas 360 is closed from January to April, Sean and Simon travel to trade fairs in Australia and around the world to buy stock for not only the Toodyay Christmas shop but for Sean’s two other shops in Myaree and Penrith in NSW.
On top of that, Sean runs an extensive wholesale business, 42nd Street, from a two-storey 1800sq/m warehouse at Extracts industrial area just out of Toodyay.
With all that on his plate, Sean still finds the time to volunteer to decorate the Perth Children’s Hospital’s oncology ward at Christmas.
“The kids are asleep when we do it and they wake up and see that the elves have come.
It’s about giving happiness.
“I believe that you should try many things in your life and nothing should stand in your way.
Give as much as you are given and make the world a better place in every way you can.”