David Fairburn and Gina Svolos were looking for a place to settle down when they discovered the Earlwood neighborhood of Canterbury — an inner suburb of Sydney — and a property that was big enough to house what David calls their opposite — but complementary — personalities and interests.
A book dealer, David keeps his rare and valuable collection inside the house on custom shelves, while the rest of his stock of roughly 2,000 books lives in his van and the couple’s garden sheds. David visits the community market weekly with his inventory; visitors to the market can buy local organic fruit and vegetables and take home a unique secondhand book after a browse at his stall.
Gina, meanwhile, is retired; formerly a social worker for the Motor Neurone Disease Association, she is now an avid gardener. As David says of his partner, “She’s not afraid to try anything.” As long as it’s seasonal, she’ll grow it. Together they’ve turned their home into an oasis: as David puts it, they’re “trying to create a little bit of green space in suburbia.”
It’s the outdoor space that truly separates David and Gina’s home from the hustle and bustle of both city and suburban living. Their garden, courtesy of Gina’s green thumb, includes “a grafted fruit tree, lots of different herbs, seasonal veggies, tomatoes, eggplants, asparagus” — all of it organic. The organic part means there are some drawbacks. “There are a lot of failures because the caterpillars come and eat half the stuff overnight,” David explains.
The garden also includes a frog pond with tadpoles — “there will be quite a few frogs in the next few months” — and native beehives housing Australian stingless bees, currently only the size of a match-head. These bees are doing the work of pollination, helping to turn David and Gina’s garden into an urban paradise.
The couple keeps their carbon footprint low: “Most of our food comes by bicycle from the supermarket and from our backyard,” David says. Their guests are welcome to share the produce from the garden, either to cook themselves or to eat with David and Gina. They are also invited to make friends with Mify, the couple’s elderly cat, or with the other neighborhood cats who stop by to bask in the sun.
David and Gina started hosting guests in 2014, both Australian locals and international travelers from all over the world. The latter are usually on a more jam-packed sightseeing schedule, but even they are drawn out by the relaxing, eclectic, and friendly atmosphere of the couple’s home. “People like to enjoy the house in the morning,” David says, before they hit the city for a day full of exploring.
The pair take a laid-back approach to hosting, allowing guests access to three spacious communal areas: a living room, a front room, and a back deck that looks out over the backyard. “We just say, ‘Listen, you can use any part of the house apart from our bedroom.”
David says visitors sometimes have a misconception that Canterbury is far from the city, when in reality the train, just up the road from their house, can get you to the city within half an hour. As a Sydneysider (a Sydney local), David is used to far longer journeys within the city: “I travel across Sydney to see my mum, and that’s an hour and a half each way … it’s a bit like Los Angeles” in terms of the distances involved. Occasionally David rides his motorcycle, but mostly the duo sticks with the train. The commute on public transportation is pleasant; it’s time when David can pull out a book. “Before you know it, you’re in the city.”
David describes the Earlwood neighborhood of Canterbury as formerly a “bit of a desert,” but recently it has seen the arrival of another supermarket and more shops. The area also offers abundant opportunities for outdoor recreation. Guests can exit through a gate in David and Gina’s backyard and find themselves in a park that runs along Cooks River, a formerly freshwater river that David kayaks on and says was converted to saltwater during Canterbury’s industrial past. He also bikes along the trail leading through the park, noting that you can travel all the way to the airport, the Sydney Olympic Park, the wetlands, or, going the other direction, to the beach — all on two wheels.
David, who is interested in local history, explains that Earlwood was an industrial zone in the nineteenth and early twentieth century; his research found that their land was the site of a tannery a hundred years ago, ironic given its reincarnation as a green oasis today. After the First World War, Earlwood became home to hundreds of returned soldiers who settled in new communities of well-built California-style bungalows, and the area still features many of these homes. “The homes have nice features like decorative ceilings, cornices, and things like that,” David says, and although their home has been renovated, it retains some of its original interior features and its large veranda. “We try and keep old timber furniture, because it’s the character of the house.”
When David and Gina first started hosting, he recalls being nervous, worrying that they would need to impress their visitors, but realized “that you don’t really have to impress them because you just be yourself and do what you do.”
When you have a clean, welcoming home; an organic garden; and a frog pond on offer, that’s usually good enough.
David and Gina’s Canterbury Picks
Bon: David and Gina regularly send guests to this “really authentic Japanese restaurant” that combines fabulous food and low prices.
Addison Road Community Center: This community center is the biggest center of its kind in the Southern hemisphere, and it’s a gem: It boasts a radio station, two theaters, a preschool, and legal aid and other community services. It’s where David sells his books on weekends, and his bookselling days often conclude with a South American barbecue or a Greek theater performance.
Nanny Goat Hill: “This is a bush walk of five minutes with vistas to the city and airport, and you can look down on the large fruit bats,” says David. “We count them each month; last month there were about 12,000 of them. Each night in summer it is great to see them up close; they fly within meters of you sometimes. Gina is president of the preservation society there, and I go bird counting once a month — we usually see 20 up to 30 species in two hours.”
Lakemba: One of the couple’s favorite neighborhoods is Lakemba, especially at night during Ramadan, when there are “street stalls open until very late, lots of hustle and bustle, and smoke from outdoor barbecues.” They also have a favorite Lebanese restaurant there, Jasmins, where you can get “some of the most authentic crispy and fluffy falafels” the couple has ever had.
Paddington Reservoir Gardens: A source of water in the 19th century, this heritage site features numerous walkways and gardens. “It looks fabulous at night,” says David, “and has some Victorian-era water tanks underground that are now turned into gardens. It’s a little spooky but beautiful and photogenic too, with deck chairs and water and garden features.”
About the author: Lydia Kiesling is the author of The Golden State and a 2018 National Book Foundation “5 under 35” honoree. Her writing has appeared at outlets including The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker online, The Guardian, and Slate.
About the photographer: Ryan Kim is a travel and lifestyle photographer for Airbnb, who loves daydreaming about climbing rocks, roasting coffee, and winning his cat’s affection.