Sole Survivors

When the building across from the Crystal Street intersection was torn down, the Boot Palace came back into memory. Tall black letters, carefully painted, announced that this was the Leichhardt Branch of the City Boot Palace.


In the 1890s branches of John Hunter’s City Boot Palace were so widespread that their advertisements needed only to give the address as “stores everywhere”. Travel around Sydney and soon you would come across a Boot Palace, with a window display of shoes and slippers, showcasing the durable and elegant goods to be found within.


For a time in the late 19th century Sydney was well supplied with palaces. You could buy a pair of boots at the City Boot Palace, put them on to walk over to visit the International Exhibition at the Garden Palace, and afterwards take refreshment at the Sydney Coffee Palace. Palaces were not some kind of fairytale dream, they were places of everyday magic that could be browsed or entered.


In 1885 a writer for The Bulletin was so overcome by the “magnificent edifice” of the central City Boot Palace, at the corner of George and Market Streets, that mere words could not do it justice: “as the interior is fitted with carved cedar showcases, wherein the best and handsomest productions in boots and shoes are displayed, the effect can be better imagined that described”. Bulletin readers could give free reign to their wildest footwear dreams, and the palace that housed them.

The Boot Palace is long, long gone, and the building with its sign is now a fabric store and one of Parramatta’s Road plentiful wedding dress shops. But I can readily imagine the smell of leather and fabric that must have greeted shoppers. A clue to the Boot Palace’s atmosphere can be found in the 1911 novel Jonah, by Louis Stone, set in Sydney city and inner suburbs. The main character opens a shoe store, and describes how the shelves were packed from floor to ceiling and how “boots and shoes hung from the ceiling like bunches of fruit”.

Another feature of Jonah’s fictional shoe store was a four metre long silver shoe that hung above the entrance, gleaming in the sun, the “hugest thing within sight”. For a time its present day equivalent was the oversized Blundstone on top of the sign for Hylands Shoe city on Victoria Road in Rozelle. But Hylands closed, and while the sports physiotherapy place that replaced it kept the boot up for a while, it was eventually taken down. Now the city’s big boot is the oversized Dr Martens painted on the wall at the top of the escalators to Kings Cross station, outside Raben Footwear.


In the 1990s, for a certain type of rebellious teenager eager to assert their identity, Raben was the place to buy boots. It’s still something of a punk shoe store, with its cluttered displays of cherry red Docs, platform Converse sneakers, and every possible available colour of canvas shoe.

As for suburban shoe stores, most have long gone the way of other independent retailers, closing down as the proprietors age or the competition from chain stores became too great. Dicksons in Rockdale is one of these, recently closing after 55 years.


There is still Forbes in Hornsby, however, which has been around since 1940. Inside its shoeboxes stack up to the ceiling, and ladders are propped up against the shelves for staff to scamper up and down as they fetch pairs for customers to try on.

If shoe stores are mostly homogenous these days, shoe repair shops still retain their idiosyncracies. Many have persisted, unchanged, for decades. The best known of Sydney’s shoe repair stores is Roger Shoe Repair in Redfern. Roger is a kind of rock star of the city’s cobblers, known equally for his conversation as his skills in shoe repair.

Every one of these old shoe repair stores has a distinct character, like the Bankstown shop that is as small as a ticket booth.


Con’s Shoe Repair at Hurlstone Park has shoe lasts stacked up to the ceiling, and polystyrene crate of basil plants out the front (click on the link to go inside the store via the magic of Google – see if you can spot Con’s white cat). In Fairfield, Rapid Shoe Repair celebrates the amicable rivalry between shoes and keys (keys mentioned 10 times on the exterior, shoes 7).


Despite the skill of these craftsmen, there is one Sydney shoe that is beyond repair, so much so I was surprised to find it still in place. It has been almost five years since I visited it. At first, as I drove slowly along Hollywood Drive, I thought it gone, but then it appeared through a clearing in the trees, a little worse for wear but as dreamlike as ever.


And, elsewhere, if you look closely there are still palaces to be found, here and there.


12 Comments on “Sole Survivors”

  1. Rozanna Lilley says:

    Thanks so much for this soleful piece. I live just near the recently revealed City Boot Palace sign and had wondered about its history.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      I’m happy I could walk you through it 🙂 It’s a great sign – I like its functional aesthetic, despite advertising a palace…

  2. Frankie says:

    Vanessa, thank you. You are a treasure. Your stories, writing, photos and insights are always a real delight.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks Frankie, you’re kind to say so – it is an adventure to put these stories together and I’m so glad you enjoy them.

  3. Phillip Leeds says:

    Hunter Shoes in Springwood (Blue Mountains) is still going – wonder if it was an outpost of the John Hunter shoe palace empire?

  4. jml297 says:

    Thanks for a great post which had me traipsing down memory lane. As a child I hated shoe shopping – nothing good ever seemed to come of it – and remember a little shoe store on Victoria Road at Gladesville where we used to go. There was a tiered section at the back for kids to sit on as shoes were wrestled on to their feet. The stock was kept out the back on shelves that were covered behind a fabric curtain. Thanks for walking me back down memory lane!

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      “Wrestled” is the right word for it – I remember finding the Brannock device (the long, metal, foot measuring device) the scariest part of the childhood shoe shop experience!

  5. allrong says:

    Each day I pass the very old fashioned looking Leslie shoe store in Padstow, where they proudly advertise themselves as the home of “Misti dance shoes”. Indeed it turns out that they do manufacture shoes on site. It seems like such a rarity these days!

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      It is indeed rare – I will have to visit and check out some Mistis (their website shows a huge range of dancing shoes), thank you for mentioning it!

  6. AgentGerko says:

    Your Shoe in the River reminded me of the old Fairylands, on the Lane Cover River. It had a giant Shoe that the Old Woman Lived In, as well as numerous other monuments to nursery rhymes. Closed and deserted since the 60’s but bits and pieces can still be found lurking in the foliage as you walk along that part of the Great North Walk.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Lost Shoes of Sydney! Thanks John, I’ll see if I can track down some of the traces if I’m near the Lane Cove River.

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