Shop Sign Time Travel Part 1: The Bowie Deli

Elizabeth Bay Road ends in a loop around which is a crown of apartment buildings, some grand, some plain. The more elegant of them were built in the 1930s, like the nine-storey, art deco Adereham Hall, a tall building with a concertina shape like folding screen. It catches the afternoon light like it is a sunbeam solidified, starburst motifs spreading out above its doorways and windows.

At the other end of the loop is its modernist counterpart, an apartment building named Deepdene. The side of it which faces the road is rounded like a giant pipe, and curved walls emerge behind it. Built in the 1970s, the building’s form was based on an observatory in Potsdam, Germany, known as the Einstein Tower because it was constructed to make observations to test his theory of relativity. Its Sydney counterpart is dedicated to luxury: despite the building’s size there are only four exclusive, double-storey apartments inside.

Elizabeth Bay is a gallery of twentieth-century apartment buildings, containing everything from studio apartments with ugly grey trodden-down carpet and views onto the wall of the building next door to elegant penthouses with verandahs that open out onto the harbour. Simon and I pause outside the gates to Kincoppal, one of these luxury complexes built in the 1970s. Through the gate we can see the apartment building rising up behind the 1868 house built for merchant John Hughes. Hughes gave it the name Kincoppal, which means “horse head” in Gaelic, after a horse head shaped rock formation near the water’s edge.

But it’s not Hughes, nor horses, that has directed us here: it’s David Bowie. In the 1980s he owned an apartment in Kincoppal, to which he returned for regular Sydney visits throughout the decade, until he sold it in 1992. We peer through the fence, imagining Bowie checking his mailbox at the gold anodised aluminium mailboxes that look like a wall of gold bricks. This is the only detail of the building we can see beyond the trees and landscaping. Like many homes of the very rich, the entrance gives little away. A congested garden of palm trees and a tall bunya pine screens the buildings from the road.

Overlaid on this moment – a Sunday afternoon, people going back and forth from their cars with grey plastic supermarket bags or luggage from a weekend away – is the otherworldly thought of David Bowie stepping out from the Kincoppal gates. Would he even have gone out for a walk, I wondered, not quite able to reconcile his superstardom with such a mundane activity. But it seems he did, according to musician and Bowie-aficionado Jeff Duff. In one of the “Bowie in Australia” articles that appeared after Bowie’s death in 2016 he was quoted: “He was very hard to recognise,” Duff said, “he was very casually, normally dressed, a dude wandering around in Elizabeth Bay, nothing stood out about him apart from that he was a very handsome man.”

We wander away from the gates, follow the loop back down towards Greenknowe Avenue. Hanging from the awning beside the row of shops on the corner of X street is a sign for the Elizabeth Bay Deli: DELI in curling script beside an illustration of a cheese and a salami and some lovingly-detailed black olives.

The shop is one of those stores that has at least one of everything. Whether you need a glue stick, a banana, a container of Bacon Bits or a box of incense, you’ll find it in there somewhere. Maybe it’s just because Bowie is in my head, but there’s grocery items in here I haven’t noticed again since the 1980s. Apricot nectar in a can. Cottees Ice Magic. Pecks Paste. The spices are the same brand I remember from our pantry in the 80s, Molly McKenzie, presented in round plastic bottles with brown lids.

I lurk behind the crisps, imagining Bowie at the counter, politely buying a packet of Marlboro Lights or maybe a box of juice. The Elizabeth Bay Deli has these items and more.

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Big Cans of Sydney

Summer in the Sydney suburbs brings still hot days and long afternoons when the hours seem to move slowly in the humid air. On the hottest of days there can seem to be little respite, and the only thing that might offer some relief is a cool drink from the Mixed Business on the corner, a big BIG drink.

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Of all advertisements Coca Cola’s are the most ubiquitous, decorating the awnings and walls of almost every corner store that ever was. They’re so pervasive that it’s easy for the eye to skim over them, and usually mine do, although there’s something stoic about these big cans that captures my attention. Here, stranded above an ex-corner store in Summer Hill that now sells bodybuilding supplements, is one such big can, still advertising the “Mixed Business” that was once below. As I look at it I imagine a giant lumbering up Old Canterbury Road, thirsty, reaching out to wrench the can off the side of the building …

Over in Maroubra is another Big Can, on a long-shuttered Mini Mart. The white cord leading down from it makes me wonder whether the can once lit up at night. While the big cans are familiar to me, I have no memory of seeing them softly glowing atop the awnings when I was a child in the 80s, surely the era of the Big Can.

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Other big cans have been repurposed, such as this one on Booth Street in Annandale, now promising pizza, a somewhat less enticing proposition when available in a can. The pizza shop is on the corner has turned into a chicken shop these days, which means it probably, unlike the examples above, sells Coca Cola.

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Sydney’s most famous Coke sign is, of course, the one that has been at the top of William Street since 1974, and was recently restored. When it was taken down off the wall in 2015, some obscure painted shapes were revealed. These were discovered to be the remains of a 1973 artwork by Roger Foley, a.k.a. Ellis D Fogg, who had been commissioned to “project images of moving liquids” on the wall.

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Some preferred this to the Coke sign, but now the sign is restored to its previous intensity, its neon glow a beacon to those approaching from the west. Some of Coca Cola’s other initiatives – such as the 1996 Coca Cola Quayside museum at Circular Quay, have been less enduring. For the $5 entry you could drink as much Coca Cola as you wanted at the “Fountain of Drinks”, discover the history of the beverage and buy trinkets from a gift shop in the shape of a Coke bottle. There is scant information about this short-lived museum online, although this 1996 review from Architecture Australia provides an arch overview of the experience:

The museum’s content is equally straightforward and presents an almost fetishistic, single-minded focus on the product. Its manufacturing and marketing history fills a sequence of handsome ash-veneered showcases, whilst aurally and visually dominating the centre of the museum is the video wall—showing, to the irritating accompaniment of an animated narrator who ensures that our attention span is limited to 30 seconds, the history of Coke and its advertisements against a backdrop of 20th century events—war, sport and pop music predominate.

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Buy a souvenir yo-yo from Coca Cola Quayside.

Back in the present, I am on the search for more Big Cans as I travel around the suburbs. Last night was the hottest on record, and summer is far from over. I will need some big refreshment to get me through.

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Update: some additional Big Cans of Sydney, thank you Kirsten Seale for tipping me off about the Kingsgrove Can:

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And Kylie for the Bexley Can:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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

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White Castle

The highway curves then is straight for a stretch. The road widens here and the speed limit increases to 70, so in the rush of traffic there’s almost not enough time to notice the roadside scenes. Rows of red brick houses; the last remaining city Sizzler restaurant, with its banner advertising its salad bar and cheese toast; the marble retailer with its ragged-edged slabs stacked up like huge books. Then there’s the White Castle, rising up serenely from its asphalt surroundings.

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Upon seeing the sign for White Castle, the difference between my mental image of a white castle and the reality of this building immediately flashes to mind. I imagine that once it was a fairytale castle with multiple storeys and turrets. Then one day it was melted down and squashed flat into this long box of a building, with only the name remaining as a memory of its previous identity.

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In truth the White Castle building was constructed in 1970 as a Keith Lord discount furniture showroom. At the time Keith Lord was something of an innovator in terms of display and merchandising, constructing a series of striking and capacious breezeblock and colonnaded stores across Sydney. In 1970 this building was described as “ultra modern and luxurious”, stocking everything you might need to furnish your suburban home comfortably, even including features included a “sound lounge”, where shoppers could test out “stereograms” before purchase. This was an era of furnishing and nesting, of stocking suburban homes with new appliances and items such as the “buffet and hutch”, a word combination that sends me, madeleine-like, back to listening to tv ads as a child in the 1980s.

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The other Keith Lord showrooms have, by now, disappeared (Ashfield – burnt out then demolished for Westconnex) or been modified to the point of obscurity (Hornsby, Kennards self storage). At the White Castle, although the building is the same, the merchandise has shifted somewhat from the sofas and dining settings that used to be sold within. Outside are banners advertising oil paintings and mirrors, giftware and porcelein, but mostly the White Castle sells kitchenware. It is the place to go if you need a 98 litre cooking pot, or a croquembouche pan, or a set of Splayds (miraculously still available).

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In the 1970s and 80s Keith Lord was a place where dreams came in the form of lounge suites and refrigerators, “space age” microwave ovens and extendable dining tables. As I wander through the aisles of saucepans in White Castle, I can imagine how it would have been in here back then, testing out the brown velour couches. These couches would eventually end their life sagging in 1990s sharehouse loungerooms, but back then they were plump, their synthetic pile fresh. Shoppers moved from sofa setting to dining room package deal, from scene to scene, trialling out potential futures.

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Now inside White Castle it is like a city, where the roads are the narrow rows in between high shelves of kitchen equipment. The baking pan precinct adjoins whisk row, beside the zone of bulk paper napkins. There is a serious atmosphere, no music playing in the background, just the rustle of stock being unpacked and murmurs of deliberation about paring knives or baguette pans. I go in search of the oil paintings, which are arranged into narrow corridors at one end of the store. Here I am enclosed between snow and forest scenes, with a few Napoleons en garde.

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Staring at Napoleon, I can imagine a whole room around this one item in its carved wood frame. I’m having a Keith Lord moment, imagining Napoleon above the tan leather sofa, as I cue up an eight track and consider a glass of brandy…

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From Australian Womens Weekly, 12 March 1975.

I leave White Castle clutching my newly-purchased baking tray, walking out along under the colonnade, past the carpark palm trees and the corner window display of a Buddha head, telescope, and an advertisement for Chasseur cooking pots.

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Then I’m back in the real city, or at least a suburban stretch of it, with construction cranes decorating the horizon, and across the road real estate signs offering the whole block for sale, a “unique” development opportunity, the likes of which there seems to be more and more.


Curiosity Shop

Waitara is one of those small, in-between suburbs that rarely attracts much attention. The Pacific Highway runs through it, lined mostly with car dealerships and auto services, before turning a sharp right and heading towards Hornsby. On the north side of the train line are streets of new apartment buildings that have, over the last decade, replaced the rows of cottages that used to be there.

There’s one small stretch of older buildings on this side of the tracks, along Alexandria Parade facing the train station. In the 1950s my grandparents ran a general store in the corner building that is now a real estate agency. My mother, who was a child at the time, tells me stories of the residents of Orara Street which sound like they are from Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South: much gossip and family drama, unexpected kindnesses and the occasional crime.

At the other end of the Alexandria Parade block is a 1920s-era corner store with a wide awning. It persists despite a backdrop of cranes and encroaching apartment buildings, although the windows have cardboard signs announcing the store inside will soon be closing down. In a wooden frame a sign painted in red capital letters is propped up against the front wall: Now is the time for a bargain.

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This is the Waitara Curiosity Shop, a secondhand dealership that has been selling crockery and bric a brac from the corner store for 35 years. At the entrance is another framed sign which lists some of the stock in the store, among them: small furniture, standard lamps, dinkys, tricycles, rocking horses, fire-irons, “old and new items”, and the 5 rooms of “lovely items”. On the handpainted Curiosity Shop sign above the entrance, a 9 has been added to the phone number in a slightly different paint, touched up back in the 1990s when the city’s phone numbers gained an extra digit.

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Inside is a maze of shelves and bookcases, filled with tea sets and crockery, souvenir dishes from towns in England, ceramic platters, ornaments, objects and contraptions. I talk with Richard the manager about the varying shapes of teacups and coffee-cups for a while, and then about the store’s imminent closure. The Curiosity Shop’s owner John, a man in his 90s who lived in a nearby nursing home, passed away earlier this year, and now the store must close.

Behind the counter are framed notices announcing that goods are sold “as is”, a small watercolour painting of the shop, and a sepia toned photograph of the Old Curiosity Shop in London after which the store was named. This London shop was named after the publication of the Charles Dickens novel in 1841, as it was was said to be the inspiration for it. Dickens described the shop:

“The place through which he made his way at leisure was one of those receptacles for old and curious things which seem to crouch in odd corners of this town and to hide their musty treasures from the public eye…”

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Sydney’s Curiosity Shop comes from a world of Dickens novels and knicknacks, the old and the curious. There’s a feeling of hidden treasure among its narrow passageways and the buildings echoes with footsteps on the floorboards as people browse the rooms. I follow a sign that reads “Upstairs For More Things” and climb the steep staircase. Up here the rooms are mostly empty. There are a few 80s movie posters hanging up in a doorway, a icily smiling Joan Collins, a 1985 calendar. A suitcase contains a tangle of dusty lace curtains.

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The closing down sale has already been on for a few weeks, Richard says, and already they’ve sold a lot of the stock. Still, the shop will keep open until it’s all gone. He wraps my purchases in newspaper and writes each item down in the spiral bound book in which he records sales. The counter is surrounded by shelves with collections of small, useful, things, price tags and pens, stationery in shortbread tins, dishes of odds and ends, accrued over years.

I leave with my bag of newspaper-wrapped bric a brac. I’ll miss The Curiosity Shop, even though it is not by any means Sydney’s only secondhand goods dealer; there are many of them around the suburbs. It has, however, always been one of my favourites, a monument to curiosity in the changing suburbs.

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The Rio

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At night the only place open in Summer Hill was the Rio Milk Bar. It shone like a gem in the dark street. I’d go in there sometimes – years ago when I used to live nearby – to buy things like a can of lemonade or a packet of jubes. One evening I went in and George, the owner, was sitting behind the counter as usual, grinning at an episode of the Simpsons which was playing on the tv. I was surprised to find George, who was in his 80s, watching the Simpsons. The store with its displays of milkshake paraphernalia and chocolate bars was such a trip to the 1950s that the Simpsons seemed shockingly contemporary.

The Rio was a cheerful place, with its window display up of handmade tinfoil signs, chocolate bar packets and collages of pictures of ice creams cut out from their boxes. On the front window in faded letters “The Rio Bar” was hand-written like a signature. Inside the displays were decorated with streamers and stars cut out from hologrammatic foil. On one wall was a faded illustration of an 80s dude in Raybans, clasping a large milk shake drawn on white paper, added in by George.

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George opened the milk bar in 1952 and worked there every day until he passed away in May 2015 at the age of 92. In the 50s he was one of the many Greek migrants who ran milk bars across the suburbs, many of them near the local cinemas that were also once plentiful. That the Rio, like its prominent inner-west neighbour the Olympia, had such longevity seemed like a kind of magic.

Recent pasts are all around us, in bits and pieces, traces and rumours, but there are increasingly fewer places where it’s possible to enter their atmospheres. One of the few places where the recent past is preserved is Sydney’s old shops – the milk bars, shoe repairs, barbers and delis that have remained unchanged for decades. They seem charmed, as though their surprising persistence has made them eternal. But over the last few years many of the stalwarts have gone. The Oceanic Cafe in Surry Hills recently closed after being open since the 1930s, after the death of Nellie, the owner. The real estate sign on the roof has SOLD emblazoned across it, but the details inside are still as ever: the hat hooks on the walls and the Tip Top chalkboard with the daily specials, beef rissoles and lamb’s fry.

The Rio has been closed for almost a month now. In the days after George’s death people left flowers on the milk bar’s doorstep. In that same week news articles, radio shows and online commentary paid tribute to his long life and dedication to his store and community. Now things at the Rio are still. The store still looks as it has for so many decades, with its blue and white paint and twinkling tinfoil decorations. At night the shop is dark apart from the one lighted sign, promising Sweets and Smokes to the empty street.

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Doctor What

I’m walking through Bondi Junction, out of the miserable bus interchange, past the entrances to the gleaming mall and into the disorder of the street on a Saturday morning. Two security guards, wearing the pained expressions of the heavily hungover, sit on a bench passing a giant bottle of orange juice between them. Couples wearing compression tights have the wholesome look of credit card ad models. A backpacker holding a budget packet of supermarket apples pauses at the corner, deciding which way to turn as people move in all directions around him.

Bondi Junction is a place I visit rarely: every area of Sydney has its own centre, and I’ve never lived in the east. But there is one place in Bondi that has been spoken about often enough to become a mythical presence in my imagination. Bondi has an extraordinary video store. People would talk about it, in those days before films went online. It was the video store that had everything, every obscure film you might ever want to see. Its name was Doctor What.

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The store is crowded with shelves, the first room full of DVDs, the back room with VHS tapes. The worn blue carpet, scuffed away in places, marks the path through the genres: Action Comedy, True Story Drama, Cult. The space that’s not taken up by movies has a sign or a list attached to it, lists of films by director, films new to weekly rental, and explanatory signs about the Doctor What system of classification.

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The store is busy with people browsing the shelves intently. Doctor What is closing at the end of the month and their long term customers and the city’s film buffs have come to see what treasures they can find. Unlike most other video stores Doctor What never jettisoned their VHS collection, and the back room is full of the kinds of films that have been lost to cultural memory. They are the kind of straight to video films that populated the shelves of 80s video stores, arrangements of familiar genres with a particular twist: a horror film about killer photographer called Darkroom (subtitle: “where passions develop”); a comedy about gorillagrams Send a Gorilla packaged in a heart shaped case, a horror comedy about an vampire grandfather called, naturally, Grampire.

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It’s an adventure to look through Doctor What, even as the collection dwindles in the store’s final days. The video store experience is one of browsing and awaiting the unexpected, hovering around the shelves, eyes skimming over the cases. It’s also one of being inside a collection, an accumulation of countless stories. As I break the rules by stepping into the Kids Corner – there’s a sign: “No Adults unless accompanied by a child under 18 years” – I can hear the conversation from the counter as another long term customer says how it’s the end of an era.

Doctor What was one of the first video rental stores in Sydney when it opened in 1981. It’s a family run business with many loyal customers, many of whom have been coming in to say goodbye over the past few weeks and wish the owners luck as they take their business online. These conversations arise at the counter at the front of the store where the staff are stationed among computer monitors and containers of DVDs. Around them the walls are covered in movie posters and bear the marks of decades of staples and tape and pins.

Dr What Lists

Video stores are places of the recent past, a risky territory to mythologise. Such places have a value that has yet to be determined and to dwell upon their disappearance can be seen as nostalgic or conservative, especially when digital technology is involved. But no matter what, for a few decades video stores were an important part of people’s everyday lives. Every suburb had one. Generations of teenagers had their first jobs behind their counters. They were places where hours could be spent browsing, considering story after story.

Today people are browsing the shelves of Doctor What for the last time. The collection is being dispersed among the city’s movie lovers. A man goes through the VHS tapes methodically, amassing his choices in a corner. He has a hundred of them or more in an ever growing pile. Other people content themselves with a few favourite films or irresistable oddities. A David Bowie VHS tape, its plastic cover disintegrating from years of sunlight in the back room. Godzilla vs. Sea Monster. Brother from Space, a UFO encounter film “based on actual events”

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Doctor What is not Sydney’s last video store and others such as Network Video in Stanmore have attained a similar reputation for their comprehensiveness. Doctor What is, however, Sydney’s most legendary video store, idiosyncratic in the way of all iconic shops with its huge collection of VHS tapes with faded covers, its cluttered atmosphere, and its own alphabet.

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Blu-tacked to the internal door at the entrance to the store is a picture of Dr What himself, an Albert Einstein like cartoon man in a white coat. He appears on signs throughout the store, in different guises depending on what genre he’s representing: riding a surfboard, in the hairy hand of King Kong or with the cape and fangs of a vampire. The Doctor What on the door has been specially chosen, perhaps, for the shop’s final days. He wears a bow tie and has a flower on his lapel. In his hands are a hat and a walking stick. A tear runs down his cheek.