Department Store Dreams

This year I have been a Visiting Writer with the Sydney Review of Books at the State Library of NSW, although, earlier in the year, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to visit in person this year at all.  In late March lockdown measures were put in place and the library was closed.  But after a few months, as Covid case-numbers fell and the situation improved, the library re-opened and I masked up and ventured into the reading room.

I based my research around Sydney department stores, and particularly David Jones, inspired by the novel The Women in Black by Madeleine St John. I’d read this novel again during the lockdown months and it gave me cause to reflect on the significance of department stores within the city, as part of people’s everyday and working lives.

You can read ‘In the Catalogue‘, the essay I wrote on department store archives and The Women in Black, at the Sydney Review of Books. To write it I made weekly trips to the library, spending days in the reading room looking through catalogues and ephemera. While I was in the city I also went to visit David Jones, following the trails of my memory.

One of my strongest childhood memories is visiting David Jones with my mother, travelling into the the city on the train and walking through a labyrinth of arcades from Town Hall station, to arrive at the Elizabeth Street store. In the shoe department I’d look out the window, over the treetops of Hyde Park, and feel a transformed sense of perspective on the city.

I was entranced by the wide, dark mass of the fig trees, and the arches of the cathedral beyond (it had no spires in those days, as these were added in 2000). It was my first memory of seeing the city as a place that could hold many different areas and moods at once and a foundational one for the work I would go on to do. There is still so much to go in search of.

12 Comments on “Department Store Dreams”

  1. John Tipper says:

    There are few subjects more interesting than Sydney’s department stores; I had pleasure reading your article. Not long after the Powerhouse Museum’s library opened, I enjoyed an afternoon delving into their collection of Anthony Hordern mail order catalogues. At that time I was researching early book shops and had come across an early AH book catalogue. This led me into decades of acquiring information on Anthony Hordern’s mighty store. One day I walked into Ashwoods and picked up a 1923 Grace Bros store catalogue. Yes, one could happily spend a lifetime delving into those grand stores of yesteryear.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks John – I’ve enjoyed your Anthony Hordern webpage on a good few occasions! Department stores were truly worlds unto themselves and luckily for us there is plenty of ephemera to investigate.

  2. virginia wright says:

    Our school uniforms were bought at David Jones in Sydney and I went there one day with two new fellow-pupils, from New Guinea, who had never seen an escalator and refused to use them. This must have left an impression on me, because throughout my life I’ve had a recurring dream of going up the David Jones escalator and finding NOTHING at the top of it, a complete existential void.

  3. Brendan says:

    A wonderful article (& excellent essay). Vanessa, I read your book Ninety 9 (set in the 90’s), & it’s one of my favourites. Would you ever consider writing a memoir set in the 1980’s? Thank you.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks Brendan – so nice of you to say so, and thanks for your kind words on Ninety9 and vote of confidence for an 80s memoir: that was my childhood decade, so it’s entirely possible!

  4. Robert says:

    I bought my mother tickets to Ladies In Black (the musical) a few years ago, after she’d read the book. She took my old school friend and former brother-in-law’s mum, Fay to see it. Together they share the names of the 2 protagonists and octogenarian Fay lied about her age as a young teen to get a job at DJs.

  5. Dear Vanessa, I heard a radio interview this morning and your work was mentioned. I have strong memories of catching the bus with my Mother to Wynyard in the sixties . Seeing the barrow men selling fruit and vegetables then walking up George Street. Entering the David Jones store was to encounter an Aladdin’s cave. The film “Women in Black” evoked similar memories. All the best for your future endeavours.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thank you Heather, and nice to know of the radio mention. I’m glad to hear some good memories came to mind – DJs has been a magical place for many generations of children, and it was a pleasure to research it for this story.

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