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.
Once, when waiting for a bus on Enmore Road, I observed a small, handwritten notice affixed to the wall behind me. ROOM TO LET it said, in large, irregular capital letters, written in black marker, then STENMO and a phone number. I puzzled over what STENMO might mean. Was it an acronym? Or perhaps the name of the person to call about the room? No one else was around so I read the word aloud, and all of a sudden it made sense. STENMO was Stanmore.
Although I saw the STENMO notice many years ago and it has long disappeared, every time I pass that spot I think of it. Stenmo took root in my imagination – a version of Stanmore linked to particular memories. Stenmo is nourished by thick, oil-sodden chips from the Stanmore Fish Shop, with its handpainted sign of a spiky blue wave. It is a suburb of lemons overhanging fences, a suburb made up only of back lanes. The mascot of Stenmo is the Bassett Hound that belonged to the old Greek men who used to congregate in Weekley Park. It was a large, furry slug of a dog that chomped at the grass as the men sat talking and it would snap whenever a stranger got too close.
I forever hope to find DIY advertisements as good as Stenmo. My search mostly takes place on community noticeboards, which I love and always stop to examine. Some boards are in supermarkets, with ads written on cards and slotted in between metal dividers, others are pinboards, messy with layers of tape and pins built up from past notices. The notices employ all methods of construction, from handwritten to professionally printed. Some are written in biro on lined notepaper, some have photographs stuck to them with tape, others are designed using Word templates and wacky fonts and printed out at home, some are simply business cards.
Most noticeboards have a predictable selection of objects for sale: bed frames, wardrobes and dining tables (or, often, “dinning” tables). There is usually a teenager looking for babysitting work. A room to let. Pets lost or for sale. Music lessons. Part of the appeal of these notices is that they are handmade, and while they can be sorted into categories, each notice gives many clues to the identity of its author.
It was this kind of curiousity that inspired Miranda July to visit people selling objects through the Penny Saver classifieds, a free Los Angeles classifieds weekly. She wrote It Chooses You about visiting particular Penny Saver sellers, and her fascination with this lo-fi way of putting messages out into the world. She meets people all over the suburbs of Los Angeles, from a teenage boy selling bullfrog tadpoles he breeds in his backyard to the loquacious Joe, a man selling fifty Christmas card fronts for one dollar each. (Joe ends up playing himself in The Future, the film July was writing at the time of visiting the Penny Saver advertisers.)
Even if I never call, just by reading classified ads I have travelled to the woman selling the dinning table in Belmore, or the person selling the car bra “to suit Nissan Maxima” for $270, at least in my imagination. Each ad is a key to another’s life, somewhere in the suburbs.
Most boards contain at least one ad that is unusual, or perplexing, or outright funny. Sometimes this can be due to the obscurity of the service offered or item being sold, other times it is due to more of a Stenmo type language distortion. One of my all time favourites is an advertisement for a large dog rescue.
The particular noticeboard Dogs Free was being advertised on is generally covered in advertisements from this same, large-dog-rescuing seller. Most of the time there are no other notices than theirs, which present a bewildering array of items, from rocking horses to appliances and medical beds. The ads are written on scraps of paper, on photographs, and sometimes directly onto the surface of the noticeboard itself.
Over time, items recur, whether the same ones or multiples, such as the rocking horse.
Recently I noticed, in addition to those on the noticeboard, there were ads written in green marker on the metal shelf underneath the nearby public phone. The ads are moving out from the noticeboard to consume the surrounding streets, even making it onto t-shirts, as seen in yet another ad for the rocking horse.
Sydney’s master of ads beyond the noticeboard would have to be an individual dubbed by my friend Lucas as “Bar Fridge Man” or by others “Sign Man“. If you’ve spent any time around the inner suburbs of Sydney over the last fifteen years, you’ll be familiar with Bar Fridge Man. Objects – bags, chairs, paintings, shoes, eskies, garment bags, belts, folders, a Dungeons and Dragons game board, anything, everything – became canvases for ads, usually for beds or fridges or larger domestic appliances, always written in white-out to cover the entirely of the object beneath.
It has been some years since I’ve spotted one of these ads, but for a long time no walker around Redfern would be spared a sighting of some domestic object branded with an ad for a queen bed or similar. Almost as compelling a conversation topic as the Olympia Milk Bar, Bar Fridge Man fuelled much speculation. Was it legitimate? Was it art ? Or could it be made into art? There was at least one exhibition of a collection of these ads at Slot Gallery in 2004, with an accompanying text linking them to themes in contemporary Australian art, and also the chalk messages of Eternity, written on Sydney streets by Arthur Stace hundreds of thousands of times between the 1930s and 1960s. Could “Single Bed $100” be the work of a contemporary, commercially-minded version of Stace?
Before getting carried away with interpretation, there were more pressing questions to address. What happened when you called the number? Here, stories varied. The person who answered laughed and hung up. Or, they responded seriously to the enquiry, but said the single bed was sold. Or they made arrangements to meet; a number of people claimed to have visited the BFM headquarters. Someone had even bought a bed from them. Was the person behind the ads really a nice old guy, bemused by the attention he received? Stories varied enough for there to be a sense of mystery about the ads, which had almost ceased to be ads altogether and become more of a game, or a souvenir. Plenty of inner west houses had a BFM advertisement on the mantelpiece, mine included.
I did feel a little guilty about removing the painting from its location – amid a pile of trash outside the long-closed Castle Connell pub on Regent Street – but there were so many of these ads around the place that it didn’t seem as if it would deprive the seller of customers. Some ads, placed in more out-of-the-way positions, remained for years, such as this folder, hung up above the electricity meters of a block of apartments on George St, Redfern. It remained, rusting and water damaged, for more than a year before finally disappearing, although it was readable to the end: white-out on plastic folder is a durable medium.
As someone who always favours the DIY and unofficial, these ads were like small deposits of treasure, the kind of urban secret that was a reward for those who looked closely. They drew attention to the otherwise ordinary pockets of space in which they were left, on the fences of vacant lots, in the corners of stairwells, in disused corners. The street was transformed into one, vast community noticeboard.
While no successor to Bar Fridge Man has yet arisen, the most recent trend in street advertising are ads offering to buy houses. They appear on telegraph poles and fences, for people to notice as they drive by. The message is usually the same: WE BUY HOUSES. Every time I see them I try to imagine their target market: the kind of person who has it together enough to own a house, but would sell it to someone advertising on a telegraph pole, with an ad written in permanent marker on a square of corflute.
[A note about phone numbers: I have obscured the classified ad phone numbers but left the bar fridge man number, as numerous photographs of their ads exist already online. I also left We Buy Houses, as these signs are visible on fences all over the suburbs.]