One day late last year I was travelling along Parramatta Road, looking out the window as the bus moved slowly towards the city. My eyes travelled over the shopfronts like I was reading a text I knew by heart. But this time there was a piece missing: a shop had recently been demolished, exposing the side wall of the neighbouring building. The bus accelerated, following the green traffic light up ahead, and as it drove past the gap I caught sight of a ghost sign on the wall. The bus was moving fast, but I managed to read one of the words, LAV… Lavatories?
Indeed this was correct. The next day I returned on foot and peered through the hoardings to read it properly. In plain black lettering it read, through the distortion of the mortar and grime: Lavatories, Hearth and Verandah Tiles. Then: Grates, gasfittings &c. Terms Cash.
It wasn’t the most spectacular ghost sign, but it was an old one as such signs go. In the early 1890s the Steam Marble Works on Parramatta Road in Annandale, near Johnston Street, had sold these tiles, grates and gasfittings. The works had been run by a partnership, two men with the Dickensian names of Moodie and Creak. Almost as soon as I found this out, I read a further newspaper article that described how the marble works had been destroyed by a fire in 1894, drawing that part of their story swiftly to a close.
A few months later there was another Parramatta Road demolition nearby, down the hill from the Lavatories sign, towards Johnston’s Creek. On the first day I noticed it, half of it had been revealed.
Then soon, more.
I recognised the slogan, ‘easy starting, sweet running, more miles’, as I’d read it on another ghost sign some years before, on New Canterbury Road in Hurlstone Park, for another product of the Vacuum Oil Company, this one named Benzine. Both were from the 1920s, when names like Benzine and Plume would have signified a new technological era, rather than environmental damage.
A century on, cars continue on these busy roads. Buildings are demolished and new ones are built, and sometimes, in between, these messages are briefly revealed. I keep a good lookout for them.
I first came to know the Olympia Milk Bar in the late 1990s. Then it seemed a relic of the past that could surely not be around for much longer. Of all the rundown shops on Parramatta Road, of which there were then many, it was the oldest, and made the least concessions to the present day. It had remained essentially unchanged for generations, retaining the same facade and interior it had opened with in 1939. Its most recent changes were the 1970s and 80s chocolate and soft drink advertisements that decorated the walls. I remembered the slogans from the tv ads of my childhood – ‘get a hole lot more out of life’ with Life Savers, and ‘dying for a Solo’ with a photograph of a crocodile, from an ad campaign that had cast Solo fizzy lemon drink as the beverage choice of the rugged.
But I noticed these details later. For a good while I wasn’t brave enough to enter the Olympia. I just peered inside from the doorway. Through the gloom I could see rows of empty chocolate boxes on the shelves behind a high counter, and a blackened neon sign on the back wall, offering Late Suppers. I sometimes caught sight of the proprietor, an elderly man who wore a white apron, standing at the front window, watching the road. The milk bar had few customers but was well known, and rumours about it circulated as people compared stories of their visits. Worried I miss my chance I soon mustered up the courage, and went in with a friend for what would be the first of many visits for tea.
(First visit to the Olympia Milk Bar, c.1999)
On Parramatta Road the traffic surges on, the daily rush of it to and from the city, but inside the Olympia milk bar, time had a different quality. When I stepped inside, the first time and ever-after, I felt the shift into its particular bubble of memory. Sitting at one of the linoleum-topped tables, drinking tea brewed in an aluminium teapot, I looked out at the flare of light of the entrance, like the mouth of a cave, beyond which the cars moved relentlessly. Sometimes the traffic lights would stop the flow for a few seconds, and there’d be a spell of quiet. In these intervals sensed the space of the Olympia around me, the empty rooms above and behind the cafe, and how this was the proprietor’s world, one that was both long ago, and now.
(Working on the manuscript of Mirror Sydney in the Olympia, 2017)
Since those times, much has been written about the Olympia. It has been the subject of stories, news reports, radio shows, Facebook groups, blog posts, and artworks. It has become iconic, the city’s archetypal anachronistic business, an identity something at odds with the very private proprietor, Nick Fotiou, who has been reticent to talk about his life or the history of the milk bar, or to accept help with repairs to the increasingly more dilapidated building.
Until 2019, when the Olympia was closed by the council due to the building being ruled as unsafe, it was reliably open every day, often until late in the night. I looked for it without fail every time I travelled along Parramatta Road. After first visiting in the 1990s and thinking it would surely not be there much longer, it has been surprisingly persistent, so much so its closure was met with a sense of disbelief. The door has since remained shut but with was the same view through glass storefront into the dimly-lit interior, inside which I could see Mr Fotiou sitting at the desk at the back of the cafe.
Then, last week, the door and the windows were boarded up, and the street sign removed. The news came through that Mr Fotiou is now living in a nursing home, and it’s uncertain what might be preserved of the Olympia. For now I imagine it all still there, behind the boards, all the objects in their familiar arrangements, waiting in the dark.
It is busy in Marrickville, even now with the lockdown measures in operation. On Illawarra Road it seems little different to other Saturdays, although people are wearing face-masks and trying to keep as much distance from each other as the pavement will allow, and there’s an undercurrent of tension that’s the mood of these pandemic times. However there is one Marrickville character who has remained as relaxed as ever.
Leaning back in her hammock, between two steel palm trees, the Banana Joes banana has the same starry-eyed look of unconcern that she has worn for decades, although she has, in recent years, lost the cocktail glass she used to hold aloft. Rain or shine she leans back, staring up into the sky, on her own tropical island of the awning.
The reclining banana is the mascot of Banana Joes, the independent supermarket that has, since 1984, traded from this shop on Illawarra Road. It’s a family business, run by Joe Khouri, and started out as a fruit market chain, with a number of Sydney suburban stores in Ashfield, St Peters and Campsie. It was fairly short-lived as a chain, and the focus has long been the Marrickville store.
I’d heard rumours that it was closing, but nothing seemed to happen for a while, until the recent announcement that the Easter weekend will be the store’s last. Among the signs on the door and the posters of weekly specials on pickles and giant beans, is a green Woolworths notice, announcing that a “fresh new store is coming soon”, news that no one would be greeting with much enthusiasm. For Banana Joes is a Marrickville shopping landmark, known for its fresh food, capacious canvas shopping bags, slow lift, and reclining steel banana. Just saying its name made going to the supermarket sound interesting.
From the rooftop carpark there’s a view out over Marrickville. I’m not the only person who is looking out over it: a man and his small daughter are standing at the corner, peering down, pointing out familiar places from a new aspect. Maybe this is something they often do, or maybe, in these days of isolation, when one of the few sanctioned reasons for going outside is to shop, any safe opportunity for amusement is worth taking.
Between the carpark and the store an old, slow lift conveys the shoppers who are patient enough to wait for it. Inside the metal interior of the lift posters of the weekly specials are displayed in frames on the wall. This gives it something of the look of a miniature art gallery, inviting scrutiny of the loaves of bread or cans of four-bean-mix or ground coffee that are featured inside. For a time, some years ago, there had been written in black marker on the door the words “smoocher’s lift”: it is obviously special to many people in different ways.
On its last weekend the shelves in Banana Joes are a little barer than usual, but the community noticeboard is still cluttered with the usual leaflets for services like the continental philosophy group, knife-sharpening, and meditation courses. Beside it is a crate inside which are stacked empty fruit cartons printed with mascots like top-hat-wearing avocadoes and smiling oranges. People queue up in distanced lines, waiting to buy their last round of Banana Joes groceries.
I’ll miss Banana Joes, but at least the word is that the banana on the awning is set to remain. In years to come it will confuse newcomers to Marrickville, who might wonder at its significance. But the locals will know, and remember.
Every time I pass by The Abbey I remember what it had been like on that day I visited it for the house-contents auction in 2009. The rooms with pale, dusty light coming in through the stained-glass windows, the paint peeling from the walls and the crooked, creaking passageways that formed the maze of rooms. People had rambled unescorted through the rooms, some of them looking at the objects up for auction, but most, like me, just curious to see inside.
Ten years on, I’m at The Abbey again, visiting the refurbished house and gardens as part of a focus tour for Sydney Open. Being November, the jacaranda trees are flowering, two purple clouds above bright pink bougainvillea. This frames the house, with its tower and gothic-arch windows and gargoyles.
The house feels different – lighter, more orderly – but the details of it are much the same. The entrance, with its blue ceiling painted with golden stars, opens out into the central hallway, which has a tiled floor and stencilled patterns of dragons and flowers on the walls. I pause here, deciding which way to turn. As with my visit ten years before, the house is open to walk through without restriction, and there are many doorways to choose from.
I choose the tower, and climb up the wide staircase, past the goddesses in the stained glass windows, and the entrances to bedrooms and sitting rooms, following the narrowing staircase up to the room at the top. From here I can see the smoke haze over the city, the silver stretch of harbour water, the roads choked with Saturday morning traffic. From this vantage point there seems to be barely any movement below, although I know that on ground level, out there, it would feel very different. It is tranquil in the tower room, and I sit on the cushioned bench under the windows until I can hear another visitor’s footsteps ascending.
The Abbey is a house of details, and every wall, floor and fixture has some kind of pattern or motif to distinguish it, or a painted figure to keep watch, whether it be a goddess chiselling a sculpture, bearded gents carousing, or owls or cockatoos. The house feels alive with these characters, as if they hold within them something of the spirits of the many people who have lived here over the last century. These figures have watched cycles of residents move through, have watched the house fall into disrepair, and have seen its restoration.
The sunroom where I remember spending a few minutes on the auction day – watching the rain coming in and noticing the tendrils of vine that had snaked in from the outside – is now clear and neat, and the sun shines through the stained-glass windows. It’s an office now, with a desk and shelves and the regular details of a contemporary room. I go to look out through the patterned panes at the houses on the streets below, their front gardens decorated with giant spiderwebs made of torn-up sheets (Halloween was a few nights earlier, and Annandale houses seem to favour giant spiders in giant webs as their decoration).
The house is made up of three sections: the main wing with the tower, a connecting annexe with a long colonnade that looks over the garden, which leads to another, smaller, wing of the house. On the ground floor of the annexe is the kitchen, outside which the house’s owners chat to visitors and their two old, friendly dogs lean in for a pat.
It’s a house that excites your imagination, one of the visitors says. Yes, says another, I’ve always wondered what it is like in here. All through the house people are saying much the same as this, for it is indeed one of those houses that sets you wondering, trying to imagine what it might be like to step inside. Sometimes, on rare occasions, you get the chance, to see how it is now, to imagine how it might have been, and to look out from the windows at the harbour and the city beyond.
Thank you to Sydney Open for another year of excellent tours and openings – there’s still tickets for tomorrow if you’re reading this before Sunday Nov. 3rd and haven’t bought one yet! I’m doing a talk in the Members Lounge at 1:30pm too.
I found the business card in a country antique store, inside a plastic folder of old tram tickets, maps, and pamphlets for tourist attractions and theme parks. The West Side Theatre Restaurant, Keith Petersen. I could picture the West Side, as I had passed it many times on Illawarra Road, its blank facade stripped of adornments besides the small vertical sign with West Side printed on it in red. The sign is hidden for most of the year behind the leaves of the tree beside it, but I notice it nevertheless.
After I bought the card, I added it to the stack of miscellaneous library and loyalty cards in the back pocket of my wallet. I’d be searching for the card to check out a book or print something at Officeworks, and instead pull out the card for the West Side Theatre Restaurant, as if that would provide me with the help I required.
Keith Petersen was a vaudeville and pantomime actor and comedian, who made his name performing in productions in Sydney’s live theatres, like the Theatre Royal and the Tivoli (his one notable film role was as the drunk man on the ferry in They’re a Weird Mob who slurs out abusive comments about migration as he staggers around the cabin). But by the 1960s, audiences for live theatre had been diminished by television, and traditional theatres were closing, in favour of theatre restaurants.
In 1967, Keith Petersen announced he was “Bringing Variety Back” with the opening of the West Side Theatre Restaurant. He had invested all his money in the theatre, he said in a newspaper interview, and was both the manager and the theatre’s leading actor. The interviewer wasn’t convinced about the location – Marrickville? Implying: working class, migrant, Marrickville? Petersen, however, was adamant that the people of Marrickville wanted variety entertainment as much as the people of Neutral Bay or Woollahra. Advertisements for the theatre restaurant describe how it was “the largest and most lavish theatre restaurant in the country”, and also “the only restaurant with full dancing facilities”.
The article also included the unusual detail that Petersen, as a hobby, kept a pig farm near Campbelltown. However he’d been so busy setting up the West Side, he’d had to spend much less time with his pigs. “And that’s a pity,” he said, “because my pigs are my relaxation.”
It’s hard to determine the success of the West Side from the newspaper traces. Petersen died in 1971, (at his home in Campbelltown, it was reported), and then, at some point, West Side became the reception centre it operated as until recently. In even more recent times the building has housed a series of final-days businesses – a co-working space, a rug shop – while it is on the market as a development site. I often walk past the back of it, where ferns sprout from the bricks, and the pigeons are always up to something. They used to preside over a squashed air conditioning unit, before the unit was removed, and then they took over the nook where it used to be.
The building has all the signs of having once been a movie theatre, being long and wide with a peaked, corrugated iron roof, and indeed started its life that way, as the Hoyts De Luxe in 1921, before it was redesigned and reopened in 1938, screening the film “Dead End”. The film is set in New York, amid the crime and poverty of the tenements of the Lower East Side, alongside which new, luxury apartments have just been built with views over East River.
When I stand on the corner of the former theatre, where eighty years ago audiences gathered to watch this screening of Dead End, and Keith Petersen once dreamed of his lavish theatre restaurant, I can hear the pick and churn of new apartment complexes being constructed all around. One complex is being built directly across the street. Its sign promises residents will “Wake up Wonderful”. They will wake to the view of the Westside, where the painted signs in the window of the rug store say “Everything Must Go!”, until the West Side itself goes too.
This post is dedicated to @ripmarrickville – which is an excellent chart of Marrickville past and present.
Maybe it has been a little while since I’ve travelled up this stretch of Parramatta Road, or maybe it happened suddenly, but now there’s a great gap between Pyrmont Bridge Road and Mallett Street, where a whole block of buildings have been demolished. The light is the first thing I notice, how the demolition has opened the streetscape to the sky. I try to remember what had been there. A golf store, that’s right (and before that, a building supplies store distinguished by a window display that included a mannequin on a toilet) and a 1930s bank building with a brick and sandstone facade, a gym, then a row of former warehouses that had been repurposed as furniture stores. It was a bleak stretch: the other side of the road more favoured by pedestrians, with its slightly more appealing businesses – a toy store, vacuum cleaner store, and school with a row of jacaranda trees along the fenceline.
There’s no signage – apart from advertising – on the hoardings that seal off the block, but soon perhaps it will come, extolling the benefits of the Westconnex M4-M5 link tunnel, for which this land has been cleared. This will be a tunnelling site, from where the drilling machinery bore in to create the tunnel that will undercut Parramatta Road Creek on a path between Haberfield and St Peters. On the Westconnex website, a progress bar announces the works for the overall scheme to be now 47% complete. When I click on the “connecting communities” icon, a message comes up: “You are not authorized to access this page”. The benefits to communities may be concealed but other information is more easily accessed. I find out that the start of this year local residents had the opportunity to vote on the preferred colour of the hundred-metre-long construction shed that is to be built here to mask the drilling operations: mangrove, ironstone, or shale grey?
For now, the site is still being cleared, the remains of the buildings and their utility lines still in the process of being removed. The shed of mangrove/ironstone/shale grey corrugated iron is yet to be constructed. As I look across this newly opened stretch of land, I notice there are a few remaining buildings, a small cluster at the narrow end of the block. The wall at the edge of them has a sliced-cake look, and reveals a vertical strip of ghost signs: CASHDOWN, then below, Brown and Dobinson, with the note they have “removed to 145 Australia Street Camperdown”, and below it the tail end of a logo, interrupted by a doorway: “-oid”. Whatever it is, it is “Perfect”, the one full word to remain on this section of the wall.
I stand by the gate, looking up at the sign, trying to decode it, as the works go on inside: digging and churning, clods of earth and splinters of building rubble being chewed by yellow excavators. It would be useful if they could remove a few more bricks from the wall to resolve anothe letter of “oid”, but I don’t try my luck with the asking the man at the gate, who has already shifted the blue mesh that covers the wire so I can take a photo through the fence.
Later I get to sleuthing, find out that Cashdown was the C. Ashdown Carriage Company, that in 1913 it manufactured items such as Buggies, Phaetons, Buckboards, Sulkies, with or without Rubber Tyres, to suit pony or horse.
I feel as if I, too, am “under the paint” as I work to solve the puzzle, inside a network of details. On the way home I go past the building on Australia Street to where the motor garage Brown and Dobinson removed in the 1930s, though it reveals to me no further information. I take the fragments of the words “oid” and “ouer” and they rattle around in my head like an unsatisfying Scrabble hand. But then, like Cashdown became C. Ashdown, I realise “ouer” is probably “quer”, and I guess that “quer” is probably “lacquer”, which means “oid” is possibly an automotive paint.
A chain of associations stretches out, across time, and the city and its transport technologies. C. Ashdown closed in 1919, as the automotive era was about to begin, giving way to the motor garages, petrol station and car dealerships that are still a large part of Parramatta Road’s landscape, as much as it is reshaped, on and under the surface. A hundred years on cars dominate this landscape, and will continue to do so into the future, as the land is carved up to accommodate them. A sign such as this one is a chance to slice a few layers back through the recent past, to consider how much, and how little, has changed.
(update: I worked it out with the help of my fellow sleuth David Lever: the sign is advertising, as I suspected, an enamel automotive paint called “Lusteroid“… though now the sign has lost its lustre…)
When people enter Gould’s Book Arcade on north King Street, Newtown, for the first time, they walk in a few steps then pause, beholding the complex interior. Like an M.C Escher puzzle, Gould’s is a maze of books, a million of them or more, extending back in rows for as far as the eye can see. There looks to be no end to the books, that they might stretch back to infinity. But Gould’s Book Arcade is at an end, at least in its current form. Its last day at its present location, where it has been for 29 years, is this Sunday. Then the moving and downsizing begins, as the store moves on to smaller premises at the south end of King Street.
A sign at the entrance announces that there’s a moving sale: 50% off. I pause, as I always do, to take in the scene of plenitude. I’m standing under the painted copy of the Diego Rivera mural, Man at the Crossroads, that hangs on a side wall. Rivera’s original mural had been painted in the lobby of the main building of the Rockerfeller Center in 1933, only to be destroyed, chipped off the wall for its communist themes, as Rivera refused to remove the portrait of Lenin.
The replica mural in Gould’s Books is a statement of intent: Bob Gould’s name is equally as connected with left-wing politics as bookselling. An entire wing of the store is stocked with political books with titles like Dynamics of World Revolution Today and Socialism and Survival. Although Bob Gould died in 2011, after a fall in the shop, his political legacy, and his bookstore, live on.
Gould’s has its own topography. The heights of the mezzanine level with its view over the landscape of shelves below; the gloomy recesses of the Australiana aisle, where I activate the torch on my phone to crawl around on the lowest levels, in search of 1970s Sydney photobooks; the narrow aisles of “serious fiction”; and the Cat Pathway at the back of the store, the only surface where there isn’t a stack of books, although the cat is no longer in residence.
In one of the many news articles that were published last year, when news of the store’s relocation was announced, the sad tale of the cat – run over – was revealed. The articles ran to the same theme, differently inflected depending on the political leanings of the newspaper. There is no longer space in gentrified Newtown for huge, rambling bookstores.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed by Gould’s, even in its last days. The stock has only barely perceptibly thinned-out. I follow my usual route, down through the arts and crafts books, Introduction to Copper Tooling, How to Make Stained Glass Lampshades, then into the Feminist section, with its row of dark green Virago editions with bitten apples as their logos, then on through fiction, and upstairs, past the political books, to the very front corner. Here Karl Marx watches over me as I flip through the 80s-era posters of puppies, tall ships, and star signs (only Pisces and Sagittarius remain).
During a deep session in Gould’s, time seems to dissolve. It is many hours later when I emerge blinking back out on the street, and wait for the bus home under the red sign and the faded, peeling movie posters that have canopied the street for decades. The names of some can still be made out but most, by now, have worn away.
By the time I reach the end of Blackwall Point Road in Chiswick, the view of the harbour expands to a panorama. I’m facing north, towards the concrete arch of the Gladesville Bridge, and to the east, a glimpse of the Harbour Bridge can be seen above the trees. On this sunny day, the water sparkles, and the yachts moored on it hint at the leisurely life that is one of the city’s presiding dreams.
But there’s something in the foreground that’s distracting me from this wide harbour view. It came into sight after the final rise, where the road widens to make a bus terminus and turning-circle. A curved strip of shops, with ten concrete loops dividing up the awnings, like a row of dropped stitches.
The shopping centre was built in 1972, after a former box factory site on the headland was developed into apartment buildings in 1968. An advertisement from 1972 suggested it was suitable for a “milk bar, butcher’s shop, supermarket (with liquor supply), greengrocer, chemist and delicatessen”, although no mention was made of its unusual design. The same copywriter described the features of the apartments: every apartment was “picture window equipped”, and promised “quiet living midst gardens and trees”.
They were right about the quiet. As I walk past the brick apartment buildings of Bortfield Drive, there’s barely anyone out, just a woman reading a book on her balcony, and a man walking a bug-eyed spaniel towards the waterside park. I take the path into a slip of park now called Armitage Reserve. The headland, with its apartment complexes, interspersed by small reserves with colonial names, has been divided up like a pie. Its abiding identity is Wangal country, the clan whose lands are the southern side of the Parramatta River, the clan of Bennelong.
There’s a concrete path along the foreshore and I follow it, looking out over the sparkling water, towards the facing headland, and then back to the details of the apartment buildings beside me. Two ducks float in a chlorine-blue pool; a grove of agave plants grow unchecked at the edge of a mowed lawn; an unsympathetically pruned frangipani tree produces a shadow in the shape of a cat.
When this area was developed, it was a peak time for breezeblocks, those ornamental brick feature walls that augmented so many domestic structures in the 1950s and 60s, and connote an endless suburban summer. When, years ago, I found out they were called breezeblocks, after them being so ubiquitous in my surroundings that I didn’t even think of them as a separate entity, I thought it a perfect name. As a breeze is a soft, compliant thing, as is the ease of life that a breezeblock structure hoped to produce.
The path loops around and I find myself back at the shops, where a bus is waiting, in between trips, its engine idling. Taped to one of the poles is a lost pet poster, for a lorikeet, with a photograph of the bird and a phone number to call in case of a sighting. As I read this, shrill sounds from above make me look up, and I see a flock of rainbow lorikeets flying over, dozens of them, towards the boughs of a blue gum tree, where they disappear into the leaves.
Back along Blackwall Point Road there’s a small, old store, with ads for tea painted on the side.The shop has been closed for more than 30 years, but was once run by the Tulley brothers, whose name remains on the awning, L. Tulley, General Storekeepers, Est. 1928. The shop is bookended by tea advertisements: Bushells on one side, LanChoo on the other.
On the Lan Choo side is a giant packet of tea, as big as a fridge, its claims to quality, economy and quick infusion carefully repainted by the team that restored the signs in 2004. A photograph exists of the Tulley brothers standing inside their store in 1987, Jim, age 83 and Bill, age 78, surrounded by the products that made up everyday life, such as Pascall Chocolate Eclairs (35c), packets of Bex ($1.50), and Tom Piper canned meats ($1.10).
The curtains are drawn across the windows, and the frosted glass gives no glimpse of the interior. When I go to peek inside, there’s not even the smallest gap to look through, and a handwritten sign, in capital letters with curled edges, tells me politely that the store is closed.
I walk on, past the houses with their breezeblock fences, and their miscellany of decorative details (red brick, iron lace, spiral stairs, classical statues). One house has a magnolia tree with boughs that stretch halfway across the driveway, obstructing one of the doors of the double garage. The tree is in full bud, about to erupt into flowers, as winter wanes, and warm days return.
Marrickville’s most striking building is painted a breath-mint green. Two pointed fins rise up from the roof like the tips of sails. The fins slope down into a protruding, triangular block at the centre of the facade, forming an angular nose. Attached to the windows of the nose are advertisements for washing powder that have, over years, faded from red to grey.
In the last week new signs have gone up, signs for the impending auction of the two warehouses that make up the green building: “Invest, Occupy or Redevelop”. It’s the last option that has Marrickvillians nervous. The building is a landmark, a moment of novelty among the otherwise functional architecture that surrounds it.
For decades the building has been occupied by Ming On Trading, a retailer and wholesaler of sewing accessories: buttons, zippers, threads, labels. An arrangement of boxes inside the entrance displays some of the miscellaneous goods that Ming On trades in. Tubs of washing powder are stacked up, there are plastic baskets of socks and sticky tape, bird cages hang from the ceiling. Further inside, almost the whole lower floor of the showroom is dedicated to sewing thread. The metal shelving makes narrow aisles, lined with a rainbow of reels of thread. Unspool it all and it would reach to the moon.
The Ming On building is the kind of place that people stop to notice, photograph, and wonder about. What could be inside this bright, strange building? It’s vernacular value is high, but in other systems of worth – architectural, historical – it has left few traces. I find a newspaper article about a fire on the site in 1970, which destroyed the two existing factory buildings: the current building must have risen from these ashes. In the early 1980s, ads for Pacific Furniture exalt the new, unique dynamic collections of lounge furniture available at their showroom there. Then, later, come references Ming On Trading Co. Pty Ltd.
The style of the building – like a rectangle has swallowed a triangle – is less 1970s-functional, more a kind of industrial Googie, the post-war, space-age American architectural style that was given to Californian diners and petrol stations. There’s no functional reason for its preposterous outfit, the fins on its roof and bright green coat. But the building is a reminder of the importance of eccentric spaces, in a city where, increasingly, the oddities are being ironed out.
Inside Ming On Trading, business continues as usual among the millions of buttons and racks of lace trims. Once the building is sold, Ming On will move south west, to Villawood, but apart from the real estate signs out the front, there’s little indication of the change. Heading up to the top floor, I start up the central stairs, pausing at the landing in the middle. I’m inside the triangle that forms the building’s nose, looking out towards Addison Road through the angled windows. Across the road, I notice a woman has stopped walking to reach into her bag. She looks over towards the Ming On building, with its fins and bright green paint, holds up her phone and takes a photo of it, a bittersweet expression on her face.
On an upstairs window of a long-closed shop on Marrickville Road is the fading painted sign for the Mona Lisa Photographic Studio. Its cracked silver lettering makes me think of a logo on a 1950s powder compact, silver letters on a pink plastic case. I imagine that the interior of the photography studio might continue in this powdery style: white carpet, chairs with spindly, gold-painted frames and fluffy pink upholstery, gladioli in a tall glass vase.
At street level, in a stripe above the entrance, are more signs, some in Greek, others in English: another for the Mona Lisa, and one for Finix Discount House, with an illustration of an ascending golden phoenix to accompany it. I peer inside. The two showcase windows to either side of the door are empty, but further back inside the store is a pile of leftover objects: chairs, debris, bedspreads compressed into squares and wrapped in plastic.
The yellow-striped wallpaper is peeling, and wires hang down from the roof, but the space doesn’t quite seem abandoned. A ladder and a broom are propped up against the wall as if at any moment someone might come in and resume the task of clearing out the store. I could see a row of signs on the windows for Blankets, Carpets, Gifts and Crystal. With each word I imagine the store in its heyday, the topography of soft or glistening objects that would have made up its interior. Things bought here would still be in people’s houses, or have recirculated through op shops, or remain at the back of cupboards, never-used wedding presents from decades before.
I am being watched: from the tiled stairwell at the side of the store hangs a framed print of the Mona Lisa. She looks in my direction serenely, with her seeing-but-not-seeing expression, from the wall-mounted glass cabinet lined with flocked wallpaper where she has been, for decades, encased.
A handpainted sign in English and Greek above the cabinet directs all photography enquiries to the shop downstairs. I stumble my eyes over ΦΩΤΟΓΡΑΦΕΙΟ, decoding it as “photography”. I don’t read or speak Greek so later, when I am back home, I type the words on the sign into an online translation site and they come out, after auto-correction of the text, as “information about the photography lost under the story”. I like it. For as I stand peering through the metal grille that seals the premises off from the street, I dream up stories about the Mona Lisa Photographic Studio. I think of the carefully dressed people who once climbed the stairs, walking up towards the portrait photographs that were soon to be taken of them, preserving that day, that moment.
(Those with Marrickville connections might be interested in the Marrickville Map I made, which includes the Mona Lisa among other landmarks.)