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.
Memorial stores are shops that are no longer open but remain a part of the street, quietly anachronistic. People peer into their windows hoping to discover their stories by looking inside, and dream of walking past one day to find the doors open.
The pink and mauve facade of Marie Louise salon is an elegant surprise among the shops on Enmore Road, even to those who know the street well. The curved windows are like two jewelled eyes, indeed for a long time each window had hung in it a large cardboard eye with spiky black eyelashes. Now the eyes are gone and the window has a collection of soft toys, pink and purple artificial flowers and Christmas baubles. One framed photograph rests among the flowers, of a man in a police uniform. Who he is we are left to guess.
The doors of Marie Louise are rarely open and it ceased to be a salon many years ago. But it doesn’t have the atmosphere of dereliction of an empty shop. The window displays change now and again, the mail is cleared out from under the door. People stop to photograph its pink exterior and peer into the windows, hoping to see inside, although curtains prevent any glimpse of the interior.
The Marie Louise salon was run by two siblings, Nola and George Mezher, who started working in the salon in the late 1950s. Both were hairdressers and became public figures in the early 1980s when they won Lotto. Most Lotto winners choose anonymity, but the Mezhers were happy to appear in the media, as they used their money to set up the Our Lady of Snows soup kitchen on the corner of Pitt Street and Eddy Avenue, below Belmore Park. Their winning Lotto numbers were derived from saints birthdays, and the unusual name of their soup kitchen, Our Lady of Snows, was that of a church in Rome. They divided their time between the salon and working at the soup kitchen and other Our Lady of Snows projects.
I would sometimes see Nola in the Our Lady of Snows van, holding up traffic while reverse parking on Enmore Road. If I saw the door to the salon open I’d go into Marie Louise for a trim. I sat in a vinyl chair with a towel pinned around my neck, my eyes wandering over the photographs and decorations that surrounded the mirrors. Photos of Nola and George, pictures from magazines, artificial flowers, giant novelty combs. The salon had pink and white candy striped panels on the walls, separate aluminium footrests under each chair, and trays and trays of curlers. I could have looked at the details endlessly. Behind me was a row of hairdryers on pedestals, their domed heads like huge snowdrops. As Nola worked on my hair a cockatoo hopped over the backs of the chairs, chattering.
Nola died in 2009, and since that time George has tended the window display. He still does work for the Our Lady of Snows hostels, checks on the salon from time to time and visits the St Lukes op shop next door to it. Perhaps this is where some of the soft toy creatures in the window – a turtle, a butterfly, a rabbit – have come from. I always look into the windows to see what has changed, and when there are changes it always seems a little bit magical, like the objects have rearranged themselves.
Koles Foto on Liverpool Street in Ashfield is painted Kodak yellow and incorporates two stores, one for manchester, the other photography equipment and supplies. The stores are mirror images of each other and were run by a husband and wife, the Koles. She ran the manchester store, and he the photography. After his wife’s death Mr Koles has continued to arrange the window display of her store, with floral towels and patterned dishcloths neatly pegged to stands. Inside her store the shelves are stacked neatly with balls of wool, and a cardboard cutout of a Japanese lady in a Kimono stands behind the door, smiling out into the street.
Mr Koles has continued to open his photography store regularly, although I haven’t seen it open for a while now. A few times I went in to talk to him. He told me, exactly to the day, how long it had been since his wife died, and he looked so sad at that moment I reached out and clasped his hand. They were Harbin Russians and had emigrated to Australia many decades ago – he had shortened their surname from four syllables to one to make it easier for Australians to pronounce. Koles is also similar to Kodak, the other name that dominates the signs on the store. Kodak too was an invented name, chosen by George Eastman because he liked the letter K.
Peering into Mr Koles’ side of the store the desk is neatly, but actively arranged, an open phone book on the counter and calendars open to different dates and years on the wall behind it. A small, day to a page calendar is open to today’s date, the 17th of January, although from two years ago. The store has cabinets full of old photographic equipment, photo frames and containers with packets of photographs in them, neatly indexed, still waiting for people to come to collect them. At the back of the store is a set-up for portraits, with a long green curtain and big metal spotlights. A white screen has been set up in front of the curtain, for passport photos. All this rests, still and perfect, and I can stand at the window and skim my eyes over it, noticing something different each time
Memorial stores are both memorials to people as well as the past. They act as the street’s memory. Like Now and Then photos, in which old photographs are held up so they match up with their locations in the present, these old, time capsule stores make it easier to imagine how the rest of the street must once have looked, with signs painted on the awnings above and meticulously arranged display windows. Koles is like a porthole to a different kind of Ashfield, a 1970s place with women in bright dresses, a 1950s place with men in suits and hats.
Looking beyond Koles, the street switches back to the present day, the many restaurants with Shanghai in their names – New Shanghai, Shanghai Night, Shanghai Food House, Taste of Shanghai – the Ashfield mall and the square in front of it where people sit under trees smoking, shopping bags puddled at their feet. Liverpool busy with traffic and people awaiting the safe moment to jaywalk across it.
Parramatta Road has many empty and abandoned shops, but only one memorial store, Knispel Hardware in Leichhardt. For a while the store was closed but with all the stock inside intact, the products still on the shelves, the painted signs advertising Taubman’s paints hanging from the ceiling. The two front display windows were arranged with a collection of objects, artificial plants, tool catalogues, a large lightbulb with the legend KEYS CUT painted on it. A long time ago I went into Knispel while it was still operating to get keys cut and felt a kind of nervous luck that such an old store still existed and I could visit it. I still have the key I got cut there on my keyring, even though the key is to a house I left many years ago.
Then all the contents were cleared out, the signs taken down from the ceiling and stacked against the sides of the room, and the floorboards swept. The display windows were cleared and only a few objects were left there, some artificial flowers and a red Eveready CLOSED sign leaning up against a wooden box. The windows had become a memorial for the woman who ran the store who died in 2009. Taped to the inside of the glass were photographs of her behind the counter, as a bride, with her family, and as an elderly lady. One of the pieces of paper had her name in large letters: Lois Kyle (Peach), and the legend “sadly missed”.
Years have passed since the memorial for Lois and most of the photographs have been taken down. The artificial flowers remain, and a large, dusty plastic Santa has been added, perhaps for the Christmas just gone. His red clothes are faded and he holds a bunch of balloons that would light up if his power cord was plugged in. One black and white photograph remains, pinned to the back wall of the display window, of Lois in the store leaning against the counter, wearing an apron. The windows are covered in graffiti scrawls and boarded up where they have been smashed, and the doorway has piles of trash blown in from the street. Everything is covered with the fine, black, Parramatta Road soot that covers everything in its vicinity.
For all the decay of the exterior, peering in through the door of Knispel the interior of the store has an eerie beauty. The light of the overcast day comes through the skylight and the windows at the back and illuminates the floorboards and the few items of furniture still left inside. It looks peaceful in there.