Dimboola Imaginarium: When a shop feels like a museum & a home

By Indira Laisram
Chan Uoy, founder Dimboola Imaginarium

If you are one of those who have not heard about Dimboola, it is a small country town in the Shire of Hindmarsh, next to the Wimmera river in western Victoria. It is said you can swim in this river, unlike most of the rivers in Melbourne. The region also boasts of the Pink Lake and Little Desert National Park, a camper’s favourite destination with emus and kangaroos for company. But if there is one more factor that has added total vibrancy to this town, it is the Dimboola Imaginarium opened in November 2019.

So what is an Imaginarium? For Chan Uoy, the man behind this unique project, “It is a place that stimulates one’s imagination and takes one’s mind somewhere else.”

True enough. At Dimboola Imaginarium, you make discoveries as you go along. It is a home-cum-shop but what makes it special is the heritage component of the building and the fact that the collections in the shop draws on Chan’s sensory memories of his travels around the world. Quite a ‘whimsical living room filled with curios, collectables, toys, books, plants and other unique gifts’.

So, the Dimboola Imagninarium building was essentially the National Bank of Australasia built in 1909 in the Renaissance style.

Dimboola Imagninarium building

To go back to a bit of history, when the bank closed in 2002, it was up for sale and the people who bought it tried to turn it into a tavern but it didn’t go ahead because they couldn’t get the liquor licence. It was sold again and it became a private home. But when it became a private home, the new owners didn’t share the building with the town, says Chan.

When it was up for sale for the third time, Chan bought the building as a home but also with the intention of having a business in the regional bank space and share that history with the town. Like many other things, Chan knew he could realise his avante garde idea for a shop.

The interesting thing that hits you when you walk through the door is a 3.7 metre giraffe made from recycled plastic bottles from designers in Sydney. Fortunately, the shop is in the original bank’s space with a 4.5 metres height which easily accommodate a real-life size for a teenage giraffe. Not many shops have giraffe that big inside a shop!

The bank vault (where money was kept) has been turned into a historical room where people can easily spend an hour soaking up the museum-like ambience.

And then there are the stocks that are Chan’s aesthetic guides. “We have jewellery made from animal bones, statues made from pigeon heads made locally. We have monkey lamps, black and white monkeys that hold a light globe from Seletti the Italian brand. We also sell hanging balloons which you could use for your bedroom or nursery, we have pop culture statues, etc.,” says Chan.

The Dimboola Imaginarium also sells French perfume from an independent perfume house from the Marais district of Paris. Quite innovative and avant-garde for a small town. “We are the only shop in Australia to have the entire collection of the brand Etat Libre d’Orange, Myer at Burke Street in Melbourne only has six. It is very niche, you cannot buy this at duty free because it is very independent and exclusive,” claims Chan.

The list goes on. From beautiful coffee table books published in France and Germany to handmade cigar box guitars, plants and gifts from all over the world, the imaginarium has things that are unique, quirky and beautiful—things that you would not see every day in a normal shop.

“When we first opened, it was important to set the right impression because a lot of people don’t know what an imaginarium is. So, we set the tone getting products from all over the world,” says Chan, who has always set high standards through his business career.

A restaurateur for the past 20 years, Chan was successfully running Bopha Devi in Melbourne specialising in Cambodian food when he decided to hang up his boots. Chan was six when his family became the first refugees to arrive in Australia from Cambodia fleeing the Khmer Rouge. Although he did study Bachelor of Business Accounting, he found his niche in running a Cambodian restaurant.

‘It was the first in the city of Melbourne, I made it a nice place where people could experience Cambodian food as also its art, culture and history,” says Chan. But after 20 years, he got exhausted and wanted a sea change to his lifestyle as it “affected mental health and there is more to life than just work”.

After researching for five years for places to move in the country to scale back the stress and have better quality life, Chan found Dimboola, a small country town with about 1700 people.

Setting up the Dimboola Imaginarium became a sort of a social cultural project, a fantasy for a communal life in a small town, with the dual aim of also maximising potential shoppers from nearby towns.

“We have had people from Horsham and Arrarat. We also had someone drive all the way from Rerservoir in Melbourne to get the exclusive duck lamp from Germany as he had seen it online,” says Chan, adding, “It’s a night lamp for children who can’t sleep in the dark. If you put that light on, it emits a warm soft glow.”

Chan wants to retain the feel for shopping or bring experience back to retail with this project. He believes that with globalisation where all shops look the same, shopping has become boring and online shopping made more popular in the process. So with the imaginarium, he wants to revive the interest in shoppers.

With eclecticism at the core of its foundation, it’s about creating an experience, says Chan.

Chan seems to have succeeded. Dimboola Imaginarium is not just the town’s main attraction, it has become a destination where you feel invited and welcomed!

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