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.
From across the street the ghost signs are visible, Capstan Tobacco, Craven A, Bushells Tea, Taubman’s Paints. Two plaques announce Foords Buildings in curling letters. These words, while they are the oldest of all those visible on the row of shops, are cast in concrete and more enduring than the fading paint.
On street level there are a few shops still operating. A secondhand book store, a tailor, a liquor store in a low building that must have once been a bank. A couple of shops have For Lease signs in the windows. Others have an ambiguous appearance and it is hard to tell what, if anything might be behind the closed doors. Most of the clues to what these shops used to be have disappeared, but there are a few traces left. Cigarette ads still cling to the orange tiles on either side of a once-milk bar. On one of the ads a blonde man in a turtleneck jumper smiles from behind his pipe, filled with Borkum Riff, superb pipe tobacco from Sweden. The corner of the ad has been chipped off where someone has tried to remove it, but Borkum Riff clings on.
Foords Buildings are at the corner of a five ways intersection. The additional road gives the impression of paths scattering out, leading in all directions. The space has been carved up by the roads and the buildings sit oddly on their corner blocks. Across from the row of shops is a triangle of land with a tall white building on it, set back from the road. Until recently it housed a piano rental company and the signs are still on the windows, advertising pianos from $1.10 a day. Another corner has the Canterbury Club Hotel, a grand 1940s building with a row of winged horses on the parapet and a giant lantern on the roof. Across from it is the station and then, on the final corner, is the old post office, which has been repurposed into a pole dancing studio.
The row of shops are a patchwork of signs and coloured awnings, and on street level there are only the smallest of details to notice, collections of glass company stickers on windows, fragments of signs and tags under layers of road grime, the faint smell of chlorine outside the pool shop with its window display of a jumble of inflatable creatures. The “Out of Print” bookstore has old books with marbled edges in the window. It is the only store with a window display to loiter over. Most of the facades have the curtains drawn, the doors shut. The convenience store has shelves sparsely stacked with miscellaneous goods, dusty Santa hats and packets of toilet paper.
Cutting through the row of shops is Aldi Street. Once there was a building here called Sunrise Hall. On it the symbol of a rising sun was cast in relief under the date of construction, 1922. Eighty years later the Sunrise Hall was demolished, the only trace of it to be found on one of the two metal plinths in Aldi Street. One displays an information panel with the story of the Sunrise Hall and the building preceding it, the Rising Sun Hotel. The panel notes that Sunrise Hall was “recorded and demolished in 2003”. The panel from the other plinth has been stolen, leaving only a rectangle of grimy plastic. At the end of the lane people wheel trolley loads of groceries and Aldi weekly specials – steam mops, hedge trimmers, electric guitars – to their cars.
The city produces Aldi supermarkets now, not places like Foords Buildings or the Sunrise Hall. This shift isn’t new, late 19th and early 20th century rows of shops have been in decline since the proliferation of shopping malls in the 1970s and 80s. Yet almost every suburb in Sydney has a row of shops of some kind, many of them constructed in the early 20th century. Those in peaceful locations fare better than those on the main roads, subject to traffic of an intensity that wouldn’t have been dreamed about when the shops were first constructed.
As with all busy Sydney roads, it’s hard to walk along Canterbury Road without a feeling of struggle. Its traffic is heavy enough that to walk beside it is to feel vulnerable, rattled by the noise and proximity of the buses, trucks and endless cars. This is the kind of experience that has inspired the serene architectural drawings of various masterplans. One day Canterbury Road, like the much busier Parramatta Road, will be converted to a tree-lined boulevard, with pedestrians strolling past the pavement cafes. These bland future scenes with carefully balanced ratios of people, trees and buildings, are dreams. They seem as remote as past plans for the city like the mid-twentieth century projections of Charles Beauvais, of a future Sydney with the sky buzzing with hovercraft.
There is no stretch of road with more run down rows of shops than Parramatta Road. Travelling the length of the road is a tour of eccentric details housed in a ragged assembly of old buildings in varying states of repair. Such a tour, taken by many thousands of motorists daily, includes an array of curious sites. There are anachronistic businesses, of which the Olympia Milk Bar is the archetypal example. Signs for extinct businesses and products decorate the upper levels of buildings, such as the ‘Arcade’ building in Leichhardt which features a gallery of extinct beers in painted ads on the front. (The ad for KB “Cold Gold” Lager, cunningly placed where motorists driving home would see it with the sunset in the background, has since been painted over.)
There are DIY oddities, the mannequins playing the piano on the awning of the piano tutoring building in Summer Hill, and signs for obscure businesses, like the Guard Dog Training School advertised in the yard of E&M Unique Motors, which pictures a slavering clipart hound of hell and offers “award winning video available”. The ruin of the Brescia furniture showroom like an asteroid has struck it. Giant teddy bears watch the traffic from the window of a Burwood florist, the gatekeepers at the edge of the inner western suburbs. Caryards are decorated with palm trees, islands inhabited by metallic beasts, sometimes basking upon cement rocks. Occasionally, a stray helium balloon escapes from a caryard and floats up above the traffic and away.
If all these strange tidbits prove too much, the turnoff to the M4 motorway approaches. Just before it is a row of shops that is maybe the most run down in Sydney. It’s hard not to feel sorry for them, wedged between Parramatta Road and the M4, and to feel the encroachment of the traffic. Most of the shops are empty, the businesses closed down or relocated.
A layer of black soot covers every surface. Words are tagged over the walls like fragments of lost conversations: Arvo, Grime, This. Or on other walls there are so many months of bill posters the corners form a thick, curling rind. Among all this the Da Franco Restaurant is open for business, its folding sign propped up outside on the pavement. Inside there are pictures of Venice hanging on the wall, an upright piano in the corner, potted palms and chalkboards in the shape of scrolls with the specials written on them. In here, you can forget the surrounding disaster of boarded up facades and diesel soot, although the sound of the surging traffic is omnipresent.
Beside the restaurant is a small laneway which leads to the suburban streets behind. The laneway was once lined with shops but now the windows are painted over and it’s a minor thoroughfare, used as a Parramatta Road escape hatch by restaurant patrons and people going to and from the bus stop. Along the length of the laneway the walls are painted green which gives it a peaceful, cool feeling, like stepping into a forest. In one window an old ad bursts out in dimensional text: Shelley’s Famous Drinks.
Further down the row the curling letters of Karp Chemist have fallen askew and pigeons roost on the beams of the awning. Like many suburban pharmacies the awnings display ads for photo processing, the Kodak red and yellow now faded and peeling. Photo processing advertisements are one of the more common ghost ads. Still, in some places, old boxes of film float above awnings. Like video stores signs and they are the last public reminders of technologies of the recent past.
Soon they will slip from view. The ads will decay, the buildings will renovated into functional spaces again or demolished and replaced. For now they await their disappearance. Their shabby emptiness can be difficult to romanticise when I’m standing there with the traffic roaring past. Latching onto the old signs and the few architectural flourishes does little to counteract an overall sense of entropy.
In the The Revolution of Everyday Life by Raoul Vaneigem, a Situationist text from 1967, he describes a tension between observation and imagination:
“no sooner do I become aware of the alchemy worked by my imagination upon reality than I see that reality reclaimed and borne away by the uncontrollable river of things”. My thoughts flicker towards wanting to transform this almost-ruin, to pick up the details and bring them to some kind of imaginative life where it is reconstructed or redeemed.
Yet my imagination’s alchemy is limited. I prefer to observe these buildings as they are: their power lies in their latency. That they continue to remain, at least for the moment, seems a small miracle in a city I am told is obsessed with real estate, property values and location. It is inevitable that one day these places will be brought back into use. Whatever their future – apartment blocks or a renovated string of period shopfronts containing cupcake bakeries and boutique real estate agencies – for now just to take notice is act of imagination enough.
Besides the Olympia Milk Bar, one of Parramatta Roads enduring mysteries is Ligne Noire perfumerie at number 247 Parramatta Road, Annandale. An 80s time capsule, Ligne Noir has never, in the time I have known it, been open, although if the shop were functioning as normal, going inside would perhaps be less exciting than peering through the bars.
Inside are displays of stagnating bath salts and perfumed lotions, soaps decaying from the heat of many summers. One cabinet is filled with the signature Ligne Noire products, in black packages with the name embossed in silver. Other products remind me of the scents sold in chemists in the 1980s, which give them, in my mind, a kind of medicinal aura: Old Spice, Drakkar Noir, Royal Navy. Beyond the bath goods are racks of bright 80s clothes, handbags, glomesh purses, and cases of costume jewellery, most still displayed on the racks as if one day the owner might wake from a twenty year sleep and open up shop again.
A pile of clothes is draped over one of the counters, as if in mid-stocktake, and a pile of never-opened mail grows more faded and dusty, their messages long expired. The displays are as they were, cellophane collecting dust and signs fading to nothingness while the windows are zigzagged with graffiti.
Last week another masterplan for turning Parramatta Road into a tree lined boulevard and “liveability corridor” was unleashed. The plan, as many of these plans do, aimed to return the road to its days as a retail and residential strip rather than a thoroughfare lined with decrepit buildings and flagged with for sale signs. Before the construction of shopping malls in the 1970s, Parramatta Road was lined with businesses of all kinds; this was where people came to buy clothes, have their hair cut, buy electrical goods, all the things that are now agglomerated into malls. Parramatta Road is now regarded as one of Sydney’s ugliest places, a varicose vein in the body of the city, a problem to be fixed.
While no one could argue with descriptions of its congestion and deterioration, it is equally a place that rewards the curious. It’s decay has transformed it into a place of unexpected treasures, there to discover until the day the demolition team arrive.
As I stand peering through the windows of Ligne Noir, in a reverie about a black and white gingham Miss Shop bodysuit, someone walks past behind me and I jump. Staring through the window at the objects inside is to enter into a different world, and it is easy to forget the real one outside. The person who surprised me slows down, curious about what I am looking at, before continuing on to the kebab shop a few doors down. It was not, as I had for a moment thought, the owner come to claim their shop. Whoever they are we are free to imagine, and this is the reward of such mysterious places, the web they cast of memory and fiction. We can imagine it as a crime scene photograph, a movie set, a portal into another time, or just a dusty abandoned shop.
Near the door, in front of an 80s air conditioner, is the stalk of a fake plant, festooned with pastel ribbon rosettes. In the corner of one of the displays, a soft toy koala wearing a straw hat stares out mournfully. A Snap Printing calendar visible behind the counter shows 1996. This is my favourite Sydney museum, a slice of retail past preserved from the days of gift boxed bath salts and talcum powder, there for anyone who cares to peer through the windows.
I dedicate this post to Emily and Raquel, once of Duke magazine, who wrote about this store in their magazine – it was nice to think that someone else had noticed, and they with their amazing home museum of everything would be the natural inheritors of Ligne Noir. . .