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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”
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.
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.
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.