Tales of Tempe Tip

If there’s one type of place I am commonly drawn to, it is places on the margins: otherwise ignored, or soon to disappear, or discarded. Sometimes these places are also literally on the margins, in the outer suburbs, or on the edge of the city.

The Salvation Army store in Tempe is both. It is literally on the edge of the city, at the very last patch of the suburban land before the outskirts of the airport begins. Inside the warehouse that is the store and sorting centre are the discarded objects of Sydney residents, an abundance of clothes and furniture and bric a brac. Sydney has plenty of op shops, but this is one is certainly the most famous, so well known that it has, with its nickname “Tempe Tip”, become a cultural reference point.

The first references to the op shop as Tempe Tip appear in newspapers in the 1960s. The name was taken from the rubbish dump next door to the Salvation Army depot, and soon Tempe Tip became synonymous with the op shop, rather than with its original identity. Some of the newspaper mentions are utilitarian, advising newlyweds with little money to visit the Tempe Tip in order to furnish their houses. It is also mentioned in lifestyle articles, describing how people gather in corners at parties to talk about Tempe tip and the secondhand furniture bargains they found there. It’s the place to go for props and costumes, too. In 1971 the visiting Zorba Song and Dance company bought 10000 plates to be broken on stage in what was described as the “uninhibited finale” to their performance.

The Tempe Tip is also something of a local slang term, used to denigrate the quality of goods or clothing. If something “looks like it came from the Tempe Tip”, for example, it is no doubt shabby and strange. It was also used to denote poor quality in general. In 1966 the Sydney Morning Herald reviewer of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” declared that:

He has moved into a fuzzy world of songs which abound in personal fantasies. His voice has contracted to a mumble. His accompaniments are a scattered jumble which sounds as though they were recorded at the Tempe tip. We know that artists must be permitted to change their approach, but this is ridiculous.

My favourite articles about Tempe Tip describe the scene on Saturday morning, as people waited to be let inside the gates. In a Sydney Morning Herald article from 1982, “On Your Marks at Tempe Tip”, the scene is described in detail:

The waiting crowd is stacked impatiently behind a cyclone wire fence which heaves, stretches and sags with their weight. Promptly at 11, Charles H. Jolly, in a straw cowboy hat and a pink western shirt, opens the gates and stands back as a 200-strong crowd stampedes in search of cut-price treasure. The battle for a bargain at Tempe Tip, the Salvo’s Miroma thrift shop, is fiercer than the struggle at Harrod’s spring sale: people push, pull, scream and swear territorially over their secondhand goodies. 

In the 1980s the Tempe Tip’s opening hours were 11am – 2:30 during the week, and on Saturdays what was described as a “brief, exciting” two hours from 7:30am to 9:30am. Another article describes how :

You had to be young, fit and wearing your running shoes to race people sprinting in to get the best bargains.

The Salvation Army first moved onto this land in 1909, and set up a Prison Gate Farm here, providing employment for newly-released prisoners. A plan for a piggery was approved by the council in 1909, despite the objections from the nearby bakery which worried that “any offensive odours floating about in the air were liable to find their way into the dough when it was in a state of ferment, and would be in the bread when baked”.

The farm activities wound down and the site became a secondhand goods market. The name Tempe Tip came and stuck, and is still the affectionate term for the op shop that is there today. The shop is a large, low warehouse, painted royal blue with red awnings.

Just beyond it is a view of the edge of the airport and planes moving slowly from their hangars. Trucks go past at all times of the day and night, carrying shipping containers back and forth from the terminal at the end of Swamp Road, through a landscape of shipping containers, pampas grass, and the tall yellow pylons that support the landing lights for the runway.

Swamp Road Scene

The first time I came to Tempe Tip was some time in the 1990s and I thought it a kind of op shop heaven. The scene inside was much calmer than the crush of waiting shoppers against the wire fence in the 1980s, but it was no less exciting to me, newly moved out of home. I bought armfuls of clothes, baskets of bric a brac and a big round coffee table, a metre and a half across, with a copper top carved with hieroglyphics. A friend of mine with a van, a goth who played in a Birthday-Party-esque band, helped me convey this enormous table home. I liked to imagine the 1970s lounge room this table had once been a part of, something that would be pictured in one of the kitsch home decorating guides that I also bought in abundance from the Tempe Tip.

Furniture in limbo.

As I approach the entrance, I notice a man waiting out the front of the op shop. He is wearing a leather jacket with a logo on the back for the “Raging Dads”. His friend, another Raging Dad with tattoos and long hair, leaves the store with an armful of clothes and they push off with their baby strollers, their shopping trip complete. Mine has only just begun. It has been some time since I’ve been to Tempe Tip, but it works its magic over me as ever.

The store has its own atmosphere with the roar of planes overhead, the giant industrial fans suspended from the ceiling, and people intently browsing. A man discusses a Willow patterned platter with his elderly mother, who is holding a plastic bag of balls of mauve wool. A woman sizes up ceramic dog figurines, turning them over to look for maker’s marks on the paws. In the furniture section people move from couch to couch, testing them for comfort. A man with a bum-bag slung across his body like a holster pushes a shopping trolley past me, its contents an insect zapper and books by Deepak Chopra.

In between the planes flying by overhead, and the jangling sound of someone going through the cutlery, the radio plays U2s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. I keep looking. Tempe Tip will have it, even if I don’t know exactly what it is yet.


10 Comments on “Tales of Tempe Tip”

  1. joannekarcz says:

    Really enjoyed this read. You’ve inspired me to visit Tempe Tip. Thanks.

  2. John says:

    Great article! I first visited Tempe Tip in the late 1980s with a couple of venerable book collector pals. They had tales of when it first opened and after I’d taken a redundancy package in 1989, I visited it every week for over a decade, sometimes 3 times a week. I lived at Bankstown and included it in my “run” of op shops. It was followed by Marrickville Recycled Garbage before I circled back through Ashfield, and Neil Duell’s great s/h bookshop. Those were the days! I became friendly with the chap who ran the tip bookshop and he gave me a glimmer of what went on behind the scenes. He was a reformed alcoholic and was apparently paid minimal wages. I often wonder what happened to him. He kept the books well organised and was a tireless worker who refused to show favoritism to any dealers. However, he happily kept a lookout for stuff for regular readers and collectors who didn’t badger him.The one book buyer I remember was Alec, who I’ve written about elsewhere. Alec lived at Lindfield and would leave cartons of books throughout the week with the station staff at Syndham Station. He’s spend Saturdays shuttling back and forth between the two stations with cartons, many of ’em!

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks John, it’s great to hear about the book collector circuit as it was – it’s a particular way of knowing and navigating the city that I love hearing about.

  3. John says:

    The Salvos also ran an extensive op-shop at no. 1 Princes Highway, opposite Sydney Park, until the site was redeveloped in 1999.

  4. Ash. says:

    I wonder if Mrs Lawrie, Mrs Aarsen and Mrs Webb enjoyed being in the newpaper for buying a used wringer washing machine?

    Many good finds in my house from Tempe Tip over the years, but it has become a bit more expensive recently and it has been featured in home renovation shows. I kind of liked it when it was a more “alternative” place to shop. I can’t believe I just said that. I sound like a hipster.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Yes it does make you wonder if the names were necessary to include!
      It was certainly very busy when I went recently for this story – it had been a while for me (years of op shopping and a house FULL of stuff mean I must be prudent in my op shop visits) – the home renovation shows must be to blame…

  5. jml297 says:

    Great post! I haven’t been to Tempe Tip but my Mum is a big fan of op shops and I think I might take her there for a scout about. I loved the newspaper articles and the descriptions of the keen shoppers jostling behind the cyclone wire fence. I can vaguely remember when trips to the tip were exciting adventures – you might just come across something worth saving, although I never thought of it as scavenging. True, it wasn’t the neatly portioned bays of today’s recycling depots, but it was still fascinating as a kid. Thank you for sending me down memory lane 😊

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thank you! Yes I have some fond tip scavenging memories from childhood too: I guess I was always destined to be an op shopper. Hope you make some good finds if you do visit Tempe!

  6. Graeme says:

    My family had a manufacturing business in Union St Tempe dating from when my great grandfather was mayor of St Peters Council to when my father sold the property for housing in the mid 1970s. At that time, and up until his death in 2008, my father would regularly make comments about something looking like it had come from Tempe Tip. I always took this to mean that it was like something you would find on an actual tip. On the occasions we dropped stuff down there to the Salvation Army, he would always refer to them as the ‘Salvos’. I don’t think my family knew of the second use of the name. It may, however, explain the odd looks I would get from some people when I mentioned that as an early teen I rode a trail bike at Tempe Tip.

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