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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Update: some additional Big Cans of Sydney, thank you Kirsten Seale for tipping me off about the Kingsgrove Can:
And Kylie for the Bexley Can:
As you cross the railway bridge just north of Tempe station, there’s an ad for Odyssey Jeantown on the wall above the tracks. Odyssey Jeantown ads have lined railway overpassses for decades: they were on both sides of the railway bridge on Crystal Street, and there is still one across from Sydenham station, updated now and then but always featuring the same rodeo rider on the back of a bucking horse. In the 1990s my friends would go on pilgrimages there to buy tight black jeans, and it seemed a mythical place with its Homeric name and location in the midst of the industrial area of Marrickville.
In the centre of a yellow arrow a rodeo rider is being thrown from his horse in the direction of Jeantown. But I must continue, my odyssey continues in the opposite direction. Next I pass a series of signs, blue arrows pointing in the direction of IKEA, like a trail of breadcrumbs.
I resist these too. The object of my attention is something much closer and more unusual.
I first noticed the Anomaly looking out of a taxi window. This is the backstreet route to the airport and I was staring out, feeling the grip of the city already loosening as my time to depart approached. As my thoughts travelled off into my impending journey my eyes moved over the houses on Unwins Bridge Road. This row of houses is set uncomfortably close to the narrow, busy road, but is otherwise a typical inner west scene. The houses were once built to an identical design, brick with striped wooden gables, Queen Anne style. Each is now slightly different from its neighbours, the colour scheme, or the windows, one has a tall palm tree, another is decorated with bird cages hanging from its verandah. But there was one differing feature that stood out most of all.
As I stared at the front fence of one of these houses, the bricks seemed to be moving. Crooked and topsy-turvy, the lines of bricks sloped up and down and anywhere but neatly across in straight lines, a suburban fence version of a magic eye picture. The traffic lights changed, and the taxi moved onwards, leaving the weird scene behind, and I filed it away for future investigation.
Now I’m back to inspect it. Just as it had months before, the anomaly comes in sight as the road curves over the railway tracks. It is as I remember it from the taxi window, the bricks in misshapen lines that seemed to move before my eyes. I walk down under the shade of the swamp oaks, along past the wire fence tangled with morning glory vine. A truck goes past, full of tyres and draped in tinsel, and the rubber smell of it hangs in the air for a moment. All the while, my eyes are fixed on the anomaly and its riotous bricks.
I cross the street to look at it more closely, and as I do, something unusual happens. The bricks, which looked so crooked and weird on approach now look straight. I stand staring at it, flummoxed by the illusion. Were the bricks crooked or straight, and how could they be both at the same time? I crossed back over the street, and walked up to the corner, and sure enough, the fence bricks were crooked again.
If I am looking for an answer as to how this could be so, the opposite corner of the intersection has a suggestion. It is an overgrown patch of land with two billboards planted in it, one for ice cream, and one for Bickfords cordial. A giant hand grasps a bottle of red cordial and splashes it down into a tall, frosty glass. In the space underneath the bottle, words float: “Makes the Ordinary Extraordinary”. I took it as encouragement.
Thank you for reading, following, commenting on and sharing Mirror Sydney this year, dear readers. Next year plenty of exciting things are in store: more stories, tours, and most exciting of all, a Mirror Sydney book.
For now, enjoy the romance and shadow, and I will see you in the new year.
I navigate Sydney by my own set of landmarks, places of mystery or memory that form strings of details. Some of these are obvious things, others unassuming, others link to stories personal or historical, rumours or imaginings. As I watch out a train window, or walk a familiar street, the details are my stepping stones.
One particular stretch I know well in this way is the train journey between Central Station and the entrance to the underground city circle railway. This section of track is elevated and there’s a sensation of gliding above the city, looking across the Surry Hills rooftops, a jumbled landscape of old warehouses and storehouses and steep streets.
In particular I look out for Wentworth Avenue and its row of empty warehouses, once tea merchants, factories and offices. Until recently a number of these buildings were owned by the Wakils, the investor couple notorious for amassing properties which they have left vacant for decades. Recently they sold the Griffiths Tea building and Key College House on Wentworth Avenue and both are in the process of being redeveloped. But nothing as yet has happened to my favourite empty Wentworth Avenue warehouse, Sheffield House.
Built around 1916 it is five storeys high with bay windows and rising sun motifs along the top, and originally housed a cutlery and tableware manufacturer. Before Sheffield House was built the area had been a warren of terrace houses and laneways. A sizeable Chinese community lived here as it was close to the Belmore Markets where many worked (the precursor to Paddy’s Markets, then in what is now the Capitol Theatre). After 1905 the area was resumed for slum clearance, the houses and laneways demolished, and wide Wentworth Avenue cut through.
Live in any place long enough and you become attuned to particular mysteries, and one I have long considered is the words on the side of Sheffield House. The white paint on the wall has faded to reveal layers of large, ghostly letters underneath. The words painted here must once have captured attention from a fair distance away, but now they are almost unreadably faded. Every time I passed by I made another attempt to decode the riddle, never giving up hope of cracking the code.
The sign kept up its mystery and I kept up my attempts to decipher it, year after year. As the white paint flaked away the shapes of the letters slowly became more distinct and it got to a point where I almost could make them out. I stopped looking at the surrounding details (other personal landmarks: the Brutalist ex-bank building on the corner of Foveaux St; a cluster of 80s office towers that was once the Tooheys brewery, always with offices for lease; the roof where the sign for Sharpie’s Golf House used to be) and directed my full focus towards it. On the train I made sure to sit on the correct side of the carriage for the clearest view. Down on the street I examined it from different vantage points, at different times of the day, hoping the sun would shine at just the right angle to reveal the mystery.
The day I decoded it wasn’t a moment of train-ride epiphany – my accomplice and I had decided enough was enough and went out with the express intention of deciphering the sign. Our ghost sign reading equipment was a tripod, a homemade wooden stand with a perspex clipboard attached to it, a piece of acetate paper, and a marker pen. We set up against the sandstone viaduct wall on Elizabeth Street, across from the pub I refer to as “Harry’s Singapore Chilli Crab”, after the banner picturing a joyful Harry and a not so happy crab that for years hung above its awning.
We stood there with our contraption, tracing out possible combinations of words. Then we got it! The sloping, cursive script across the wall resolved into the cursive script of “Penfolds” and below it, in block letters, WINES. Underneath it then I could suddenly see the earlier sign for PILLS – and it could only be Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills, a patent medicine frequently featured on early twentieth century wall advertisements. After some archive-digging a photograph from the 1920s (below) confirmed my suspicions. To the far left was the ad for Dr Morse’s popular pills, a product purporting to cure biliousness, rheumatism, neuralgia, grippe, palpitation, nervousness and many other early 20th century complaints.
Both Penfolds and Indian Root Pills were common painted advertisements: in a curious parallel, the same ghost sign pairing exists in Abbotsford, Melbourne, as investigated on Melbourne Circle. It is a medicinal pairing: Penfolds wines also began as a therapeutic product. The vineyard was set up in South Australia in 1844 by Dr Christopher Penfold and his wife Mary, and produced fortified wines as a cure for anaemia. By the time this sign would have been painted, Penfolds had focussed on producing table wine, no doubt still regarded as medicinal to some.
There has in recent years been an upsurge of interest in ghost signs, those vestiges of previous eras of advertising that remain, fading on the side walls and upper levels of buildings. Sydney with its penchant for demolition is not particularly known for them, but I guarantee that once you start looking you will find them. Surry Hills’ ghost signs date from its manufacturing past, still faintly advertising overalls and workshirts, printers and chemists.
I know the answer to my Sheffield House ghost sign mystery now, and when I look at the wall from the train I can imagine the 1920s city of Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills, when Surry Hills was a busy manufacturing district, or I can imagine a later incarnation, the Penfolds city of the 1940s. The sign is like a window cut into the present-day scene, allowing us to step through into the city of the past.
The Pacific Highway meets the Gore Hill Freeway in a confusion of off and on ramps. On the Artarmon side of the intersection is a large Spanish Mission hotel now called the Shore Apartments. In the 70s they were the Shore Motel, advertised as “like a city in itself”, offering ‘Parisian Elegance’ and ‘Isle of Capri Escapades’. The Shore remains a highway oasis of palm trees and white stucco archways, a European holiday resort stranded in the wrong hemisphere.
On the other side of the freeway overpass is a block of old shops earmarked for demolition. This assorted bunch of structures once contained a boating store, a cluttered factory seconds place and a construction firm, but now are hung with banners for a new development. The ads promise “city meets village lifestyle” in the new 1, 2 and 3 bedroom apartments that will be built there.
It’s reaching the end of a Sunday afternoon and the light is golden, the shadows long. I drive past the Shore Apartments but can’t pay too much attention to the Parisian elegance as I’m watching the lane markings to avoid being drawn down onto the freeway. The freeway is quicker but I feel compelled to take the highway today. I like its curves and details, and travel it so infrequently that something is different every time.
A message from the past has reappeared. The banners on the front of the buildings might promote “village lifestyle”, but on the side is a flashback to DEFENDER SLUG AND SNAIL KILLER, in neat block letters underneath a line of metal flashing remaining from the building that once stood beside it.
In front of this old battle slogan is the concrete and flattened dirt of the recently cleared lot. It doesn’t look like a place where there would be much of a threat from slugs or indeed any creatures at all. Yet the sign gives me cause to imagine them. In particular I imagine the future, when the residents of the apartments find themselves dreaming of snails, mysteriously and incessantly. They google “snail dream meaning” and ponder the sensitivity and vulnerability it symbolises, but it’s to the power of the ghost sign their dreams really refer.
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.
Good news for fans of the enigmatic Redfern signwriter I mentioned in my post on Community Noticeboards, when travelling down Abercrombie Street recently I came across a window full of his signs, which had been collected by Tony Twigg and previously exhibited at Slot Gallery.
See it for yourself at the corner of Abercrombie and Golden Grove streets, Darlington, and for those who yearn to know more, there’s also an article in this issue of All For Art about Sydney’s most famous contemporary sign writer.