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.
The Marie Louise Salon has been closed for a long time, but it was still a surprise when For Sale signs went up in the windows in June. Marie Louise has remained a constant while Enmore Road has changed around it, cafes and restaurants shuffling in and out. The pink door of the salon was never open and the curtains behind the display windows ensured that there was not even a glimpse of the interior visible from the street. I wrote about it as a memorial store, in memory of a time past and of a person, in this case Nola Mezher, who had run the salon with her brother George and passed away in 2009.
This weekend new signs were up in the window. Before the salon is to be renovated it is open for one last weekend. Everything inside is being sold, the big old hairdryer chairs, the bottles of Fanci-full rinse. The sign encouraged sticky beaks and instagrammers, anyone wanting a last look inside and a Marie Louise souvenir.
I’d been inside the Marie-Louise while it was operating as a salon and had my hair cut there, but for many it was their first look inside the shop they’d walked past countless times. Not the woman who I chatted to as we waited for the doors to open, who’d lived in Enmore since the 1970s and used to come to the salon regularly. She told me that at one time Nola had kept ducklings in a bathtub in the salon – in the days I visited, Nola had a white cockatoo that paraded around the room, but at the command “go to bed” would stop and tuck its head under its wing. She also told me that one of her friends was a hair model and would sit at the window of Marie Louise, reading a magazine and posing as Nola worked on her hair.
It was the start of the day and gradual dismantlement of the salon had only just begun. The pink clocks were still on the wall. There was a lot to look at: trays of hair rollers, ancient hair care products, fake flowers in vases, pink and mauve curtains over the mirrors where woman had sat watching Nola work on their hair. People explored the room, picking out souvenirs. It was sad that this was the end of the salon and it was gradually being disassembled, but at least we got to say goodbye, to take a peek behind the pink and purple facade, and take home a bottle of blue rinse to remember the Marie Louise by.
There are two areas to shop in Penrith, the grey hulk of the Westfield shopping centre or High Street, a long, straight street of shops with arcades leading off it like secret passageways.
Westfield has the predictable atmosphere shared by mega malls the world over: a repetition of chain retailers in a climate controlled environment, sealed away from the world outside. The businesses that don’t fit into Westfield populate High Street.
This is the part of town with the op shops, party supplies and hobby stores, the new age shops, bargain stores and independent retailers. Along High Street there are at least 14 arcades, making it the most arcade-heavy shopping area in greater Sydney. They are not the Victorian-era arcades that might immediately come to mind upon hearing the word, but rather their 1960s and 70s equivalents, built at a time when the boundaries of Sydney’s suburban sprawl were stretching towards the west. Large malls were new on the scene and slowly began to appear around Sydney, but small suburban shopping arcades sprung up all over the suburbs.
If there is one person whose name will be forever linked with arcades and what they represent it is Walter Benjamin. His unfinished Arcades Project is a vast collection of ideas, aphorisms and fragments gathered about and around the Parisian arcades of the nineteenth century. When Benjamin began the project in the 1920s the Paris arcades were well in decline. It was their anachronistic, mysterious presence that attracted him, and in his earliest writing on the arcades he refers to them as “a past become space”, full of mysterious signs, strange objects, “antiquated trades” and vacant stores containing only few traces of their previous occupants. Despite the differences in time and location, Penrith’s arcades share something of this mystery and link to the past. What kinds of signs and objects do they contain?
A Penrith Arcades Project must begin with Memory Mall, which has round neon signs spelling out its name in cursive above each entrance. The arcade derives its name from Memory Park across the street, with its war memorial, palm trees, and annual dawn service on Anzac Day. Memorial parks are a fairly common civic place, but a memory mall isn’t so clear a connection. What kinds of memories come along with malls? Memory Mall makes me recall my 1980s childhood and visiting shopping arcades with their potted plants (which I’d test to see if they were real), little specialist shops, and atmosphere of extended domesticity: there was something about these arcades that was almost like a house in their mixture of public and private, interior and exterior.
High Street Penrith has long been a shopping street and in some ways it isn’t so different today from how it was in the 1920s, when tea rooms, barbers, bakeries and estate agencies lined it. By the 1950s there were Greek milk bars and a movie theatre and electricals stores where people would cluster to watch the televisions through the windows. By the 1970s, Penrith had a Penrith Plaza, a shopping mall that was the precursor to today’s Westfield, and the High Street shops had been tunnelled through with arcades.
In 1985 High Street was blocked off to traffic and made into a pedestrian mall. The slogan of High Street Mall was “It’s bright, it’s friendly, it’s yours”, and a series of brightly coloured canopies were erected between the stores. This was to only last ten years, and by 1996, the street was open to traffic again, although the arcades remained.
While some arcades, like Memory Mall, are populated with businesses others are ghostly, such as the Nepean Walkway Arcade. The Nepean Walkway and the now unsignposted Carvan Arcade across from it are the easternmost of the High Street arcades. Nepean Walkway keeps its roller shutter partially down and its entrance is flanked by a tobacconist and a funeral parlour.
The majority of the shops are for lease, apart from Lorraine’s. The hand made sign for Lorraine’s describes the merchandise as “hand made baby’s wear and pretty dolls”. Peering through the window, as the store is shut, I can see this for myself. Lorraine’s sells hand knitted baby jumpers, devotional items, tapestries and 70s beauty guides. These are displayed on a series of long tables in a jumble of objects and bright colours. As I peer in, the beady eyes of a trio of nun dolls, wearing knitted black habits, stare back at me.
Further along High Street, past Memory Park, is another arcade, The Cottage Lane.
The awning displays the names of previous businesses – Floraison Design, Power of Beauty, Devine Creations – as well as the one remaining listed business, Prima Ballerina ballet shop. It is next to Behind the Mask Fancy Dress store, with a window display of masks and a leering Incredible Hulk on the sign at the back of the arcade. The Cottage Lane is Penrith’s fantasy arcade, where people come for their tutus, masks and costumes. Across from these stores is a mainstay of Penrith’s arcades, a new age store, this one offering psychic readings. A hand made sign spells out “please come in and say hi” in sparkly letters, with the rates for half hour and hourly readings.
I have no need to consult my fate, I know it, at least for the next few hours. I leave The Cottage Lane and take a few steps to the entrance of the NK Centre, the next arcade.
The NK Centre is a solid, brick building with arched windows on the upper storey, tinted so there is no clue as to what goes on inside. The NK Centre has a store which also offers psychic readings, but the most activity occurs in two shops at the back of the arcade, where the cake decorating store faces off against the wool shop. Which hobby will I choose?
Inside the Wool Inn, a queue of people wait at the counter for advice from women wearing hand knitted jumpers. The store is stacked with plump balls of wool and knitting patterns, in as much abundance as the cake tins and figurines in One Stop Cake Decorations across the arcade. I choose the cake decorating shop, never having been a knitter, and look through drawers of plastic decorations spelling out “Happy Birthday”, a rack of every imaginable shape of cookie cutter, cake tins shaped like ladybugs and monsters, and shelves of figurines: bowlers, ice skating couples, football players.
These stores sell small pieces of future. One Stop Cake Decorations contains the potential of celebrations yet to come, birthdays, successes and surprises, as the Wool Inn holds the potential of future jumpers. The neatly stacked balls of wool will be transformed into thick winter cardigans, or novice knitters’ first scarves.
To walk through the NK Centre arcade, under the yellow grid pattern light fittings which stripe the arcade’s ceiling every few metres, is to pass the inscructable black shopfront of “Your Best Life C3 Church”, counsellors’ rooms, and Buddhist statues in the gift shop. The NK Centre is the arcade of hobbies and spiritual guidance.
Back out on High Street, across from the NK Centre, is an old sign just visible behind the protruding boards advertising Nepean Pizzas and Charcoals above the awning. Words are painted in the arches above the three windows:
Pelmets. Blinds. Advice.
This is the sign of a long-gone store (a pelmet, for those who don’t know, and this included me until now, is the piece of fabric that goes along the top of the window to hide the curtain rail), I imagine this store as having the same kind of function as the psychic services in the arcades: their advice extending beyond curtains. Who better to offer advice than those expert in concealing and revealing what goes on inside buildings?
This part of High Street has the highest density of arcades. As I walk down the street I look for their entrances: some are more obvious than others. The High Street entrance of Elizabeth Arcade is an unassuming doorway with a few signs for the businesses to be found within. Every arcade’s entrance is also an exit, and each arcade has two faces, the face it turns to High Street and the face it turns to the carparks and laneways behind them. Even if people don’t shop in the arcades they use them as thoroughfares, and in the more dimly lit arcades the people at the opposite end look like advancing shadows.
Elizabeth Arcade is one of Penrith’s blue arcades. The High Street facade is painted pale blue and the carpark-facing side is royal blue, with round-edged signs that look like giant capsules with the names of businesses printed on them: Ye’s Shoes, Elizabeth Arcade Book Shop. Outside the bookstore people browse the cheap books on tables in the arcade, novels, guidebooks, pet owners’ manuals and gift books. Propped up among these is a copy of a book that every household must have owned in the 1970s, for there are so many of them secondhand: Dinkum Dunnies.
High Street’s other blue arcades are Broadwalk, an open arcade on the other side of the street from Elizabeths, and the Calokerinos Arcade, its angular blue roofline the same colour as the sky. Calokerinos is now permanently closed, shutters down, awaiting redevelopment, even though of all the arcades it has the most stylish facade.
One of the mainstays of Penrith’s arcades are hairdressers, and most arcades include at least one barber or hair salon. Of all of them, Rod’s Hair Shoppe in the City Central Arcade has the most ingenious signage. At the carpark entrance to the arcade the drainage downpipe has been painted to look like a barber’s pole. Rod’s Hair Shoppe, in which a couple of fidgety boys sit waiting for their haircuts, is next to another salon, Male Look Hairdressing, although on closer inspection, Rod seems to run both premises. Next to Male Look is yet another hairdresser, Afro Varieties, where a woman is having her hair plaited into many tiny rows.
In the Parker Arcade across the street there are more salons, Exquisite Hair and Beauty, with roses painted on the window and another men’s salon, Man About Town “gents hair stylist”. I imagine the clients of these men’s salons to be something like this man from Maxim’s Hairdressing, back in the Nepean Walkway. Hopefully if another business rents this shop they will keep him on the window.
Upstairs in the Parker Arcade is the college where you learn to cut hair before your graduate to working in the arcades, Active Career College. Many of the arcades have businesses upstairs, small colleges or solicitors offices, places which offer services rather than products and can hide away above street level. The stairwells leading to these upper levels, with their exposed bricks and worn steps, lead me to imagine 70s style offices with clunky telephones and secretaries wiping dust from the leaves of indoor plants.
On the corner of Station Street is the Penrith Centre, the largest structure of all the arcades, with pebblecrete rendering and shingle tile awnings. Inside the arcade the floor is made of alternate panels of brown tiles and linoleum, with parlour palms (real) in pots beside burgundy benches. Outside Polly’s Beads, yet another arcade hobby shop, there is a set of rigid-looking tables and chairs, painted in the same burgundy. Although the arcades have many stylistic similarities: strip lighting, brown tiles, ceilings made up of white striped panelling, each has a particularity – a colour, an atmosphere – to discern it from the others.
Skipton’s Arcade, across from the Penrith Centre, also features pebblecrete but differs from the other arcades in that it has an atrium in the centre, letting in the daylight. Pebblecrete stairs lead to the upper levels and the real estate coaching business, as well as the Penrith Guitar School. This must be the place to go to learn classical guitar, judging by their elegant logo of an acoustic guitar resting against an open book of sheet music. The G4 Guitar School back in the City Centre Arcade teaches a different style of guitar.
The final arcade on High Street is Riverlands, at the end of High Street.
Across from Riverlands the grey wall of Westfield stretches out, seemingly endlessly, behind a screen of eucalypts. There’s a quilting store, Hair Fanatics “fanatical about your hair”, and The Shoe Shed, with a window display of one of every possible kind of women’s flat shoe: leopard print with bows, fluoro yellow with black studs on the toe, pink with a decorative buckle. Next to the Shoe Shed is Derby Skates, a Roller Derby supply store, the doors decorated with a large image of a group of sneering Derby women in skates, making it impossible to look through and see if anyone was inside.
I walk through Riverlands Arcade to the carpark, where a sign listing the businesses inside (some still there, some not) is moored among the rows of cars. It includes three hair salons and a sewing shop, a bowls shop and a “coffee house”. Has the roller derby store replaced the bowls shop? I ponder this for a moment, then turn and retrace my steps to High Street, at the end of my arcades adventure.
Having zig zagged my way through the tiled and pebbled interior of High Street, I look back along it. The buildings are a patchwork of different facades with landmarks standing out from the rest: the Penrith Centre, the bright blue fin of the Calorkerinos Arcade roof, an old ad for Reuben F. Scarf Hand Tailored Suits, the serifed letters of SUITS golden in the afternoon sun. People walking down High Street disappear into arcades, to have their hair cut or buy cake decorating supplies, or just to walk back to their cars, past the pretty dolls in Lorraine’s and the temptation of a psychic reading, and the For Lease signs that make them remember what used to be there, or imagine what might be.
Looking out the window of the bus as it travelled up Enmore Road I saw signs in the window of Marie Louise salon. This was a new window display, the kind that I dread appearing in any place that I love.
Almost every other store along Enmore Road has changed over the last twenty years, but there was something eternal-seeming about Marie Louise, like it was a jewel that was set into Enmore Road so tightly that it would always be there.
There’s a particular kind of sadness that comes with knowing a place you love may soon disappear. I’ve felt it for many places, from seeing houses I once lived in surrounded by fencing, awaiting demolition, to seeing Development Application signs go up on the fences of favourite buildings. It’s the sadness of bumping up against time, where time isn’t days and hours so much as shifts and changes. It’s the sadness of things in the process of disappearing.
It would have always been a shock for me to see Marie Louise for sale, but it was even more so as a few weeks earlier another of the “memorial stores” I wrote about in a previous post had signs in the window.
First Mrs Koles’ window had a “Leasing” sign in it, and then a few days later, a tarpaulin was hung up over the camera store, and another “Leasing” sign appeared. I peeked through the window behind the tarpaulin and saw that the store had been cleared. Only the cabinets remained, emptied of their cameras and expired film. The other store also had bare shelves, apart from a lone sign wishing me a Merry Christmas, and the white cash register, marooned in the centre of the counter.
Cities change constantly, and places disappear no matter how significant they might be to me or to anyone else. Some places might feel like they are a part of me, but then signs go up in their windows, or they disappear without trace, and I’m reminded that they don’t belong to me after all, at least not in a physical sense.
Other businesses will replace Marie Louise or Koles, their pink and yellow exteriors might be painted over and their signs removed, but, at least for me, they will never truly disappear. I imagine these places that have persisted despite everything changing around them existing in a kind of constellation, dots here and there across Sydney. This constellation overlaps with another one, a fainter constellation, of places that once were. I let both constellations guide me.