I first came to know the Olympia Milk Bar in the late 1990s. Then it seemed a relic of the past that could surely not be around for much longer. Of all the rundown shops on Parramatta Road, of which there were then many, it was the oldest, and made the least concessions to the present day. It had remained essentially unchanged for generations, retaining the same facade and interior it had opened with in 1939. Its most recent changes were the 1970s and 80s chocolate and soft drink advertisements that decorated the walls. I remembered the slogans from the tv ads of my childhood – ‘get a hole lot more out of life’ with Life Savers, and ‘dying for a Solo’ with a photograph of a crocodile, from an ad campaign that had cast Solo fizzy lemon drink as the beverage choice of the rugged.
But I noticed these details later. For a good while I wasn’t brave enough to enter the Olympia. I just peered inside from the doorway. Through the gloom I could see rows of empty chocolate boxes on the shelves behind a high counter, and a blackened neon sign on the back wall, offering Late Suppers. I sometimes caught sight of the proprietor, an elderly man who wore a white apron, standing at the front window, watching the road. The milk bar had few customers but was well known, and rumours about it circulated as people compared stories of their visits. Worried I miss my chance I soon mustered up the courage, and went in with a friend for what would be the first of many visits for tea.
(First visit to the Olympia Milk Bar, c.1999)
On Parramatta Road the traffic surges on, the daily rush of it to and from the city, but inside the Olympia milk bar, time had a different quality. When I stepped inside, the first time and ever-after, I felt the shift into its particular bubble of memory. Sitting at one of the linoleum-topped tables, drinking tea brewed in an aluminium teapot, I looked out at the flare of light of the entrance, like the mouth of a cave, beyond which the cars moved relentlessly. Sometimes the traffic lights would stop the flow for a few seconds, and there’d be a spell of quiet. In these intervals sensed the space of the Olympia around me, the empty rooms above and behind the cafe, and how this was the proprietor’s world, one that was both long ago, and now.
(Working on the manuscript of Mirror Sydney in the Olympia, 2017)
Since those times, much has been written about the Olympia. It has been the subject of stories, news reports, radio shows, Facebook groups, blog posts, and artworks. It has become iconic, the city’s archetypal anachronistic business, an identity something at odds with the very private proprietor, Nick Fotiou, who has been reticent to talk about his life or the history of the milk bar, or to accept help with repairs to the increasingly more dilapidated building.
Until 2019, when the Olympia was closed by the council due to the building being ruled as unsafe, it was reliably open every day, often until late in the night. I looked for it without fail every time I travelled along Parramatta Road. After first visiting in the 1990s and thinking it would surely not be there much longer, it has been surprisingly persistent, so much so its closure was met with a sense of disbelief. The door has since remained shut but with was the same view through glass storefront into the dimly-lit interior, inside which I could see Mr Fotiou sitting at the desk at the back of the cafe.
Then, last week, the door and the windows were boarded up, and the street sign removed. The news came through that Mr Fotiou is now living in a nursing home, and it’s uncertain what might be preserved of the Olympia. For now I imagine it all still there, behind the boards, all the objects in their familiar arrangements, waiting in the dark.
Maybe it has been a little while since I’ve travelled up this stretch of Parramatta Road, or maybe it happened suddenly, but now there’s a great gap between Pyrmont Bridge Road and Mallett Street, where a whole block of buildings have been demolished. The light is the first thing I notice, how the demolition has opened the streetscape to the sky. I try to remember what had been there. A golf store, that’s right (and before that, a building supplies store distinguished by a window display that included a mannequin on a toilet) and a 1930s bank building with a brick and sandstone facade, a gym, then a row of former warehouses that had been repurposed as furniture stores. It was a bleak stretch: the other side of the road more favoured by pedestrians, with its slightly more appealing businesses – a toy store, vacuum cleaner store, and school with a row of jacaranda trees along the fenceline.
There’s no signage – apart from advertising – on the hoardings that seal off the block, but soon perhaps it will come, extolling the benefits of the Westconnex M4-M5 link tunnel, for which this land has been cleared. This will be a tunnelling site, from where the drilling machinery bore in to create the tunnel that will undercut Parramatta Road Creek on a path between Haberfield and St Peters. On the Westconnex website, a progress bar announces the works for the overall scheme to be now 47% complete. When I click on the “connecting communities” icon, a message comes up: “You are not authorized to access this page”. The benefits to communities may be concealed but other information is more easily accessed. I find out that the start of this year local residents had the opportunity to vote on the preferred colour of the hundred-metre-long construction shed that is to be built here to mask the drilling operations: mangrove, ironstone, or shale grey?
For now, the site is still being cleared, the remains of the buildings and their utility lines still in the process of being removed. The shed of mangrove/ironstone/shale grey corrugated iron is yet to be constructed. As I look across this newly opened stretch of land, I notice there are a few remaining buildings, a small cluster at the narrow end of the block. The wall at the edge of them has a sliced-cake look, and reveals a vertical strip of ghost signs: CASHDOWN, then below, Brown and Dobinson, with the note they have “removed to 145 Australia Street Camperdown”, and below it the tail end of a logo, interrupted by a doorway: “-oid”. Whatever it is, it is “Perfect”, the one full word to remain on this section of the wall.
I stand by the gate, looking up at the sign, trying to decode it, as the works go on inside: digging and churning, clods of earth and splinters of building rubble being chewed by yellow excavators. It would be useful if they could remove a few more bricks from the wall to resolve anothe letter of “oid”, but I don’t try my luck with the asking the man at the gate, who has already shifted the blue mesh that covers the wire so I can take a photo through the fence.
Later I get to sleuthing, find out that Cashdown was the C. Ashdown Carriage Company, that in 1913 it manufactured items such as Buggies, Phaetons, Buckboards, Sulkies, with or without Rubber Tyres, to suit pony or horse.
I feel as if I, too, am “under the paint” as I work to solve the puzzle, inside a network of details. On the way home I go past the building on Australia Street to where the motor garage Brown and Dobinson removed in the 1930s, though it reveals to me no further information. I take the fragments of the words “oid” and “ouer” and they rattle around in my head like an unsatisfying Scrabble hand. But then, like Cashdown became C. Ashdown, I realise “ouer” is probably “quer”, and I guess that “quer” is probably “lacquer”, which means “oid” is possibly an automotive paint.
A chain of associations stretches out, across time, and the city and its transport technologies. C. Ashdown closed in 1919, as the automotive era was about to begin, giving way to the motor garages, petrol station and car dealerships that are still a large part of Parramatta Road’s landscape, as much as it is reshaped, on and under the surface. A hundred years on cars dominate this landscape, and will continue to do so into the future, as the land is carved up to accommodate them. A sign such as this one is a chance to slice a few layers back through the recent past, to consider how much, and how little, has changed.
(update: I worked it out with the help of my fellow sleuth David Lever: the sign is advertising, as I suspected, an enamel automotive paint called “Lusteroid“… though now the sign has lost its lustre…)
The Brown Street Bridge is an overpass which crosses Parramatta Road at Lewisham. It’s a thin strip of road that looks as if some giant hand has picked up a suburban street and moved it, Minecraft-like, to connect the back streets. The view from the bridge is such that you can see little on the horizon but trees and the large orange self storage place on the crest of nearby Taverner’s Hill. It feels enclosed, a pocket of space and time, alive with the endless motion of traffic and the light rail trains gliding past.
Although there’s a pedestrian pathway alongside the overpass bridge few people walk here. It’s noisy and the cavern of Parramatta Road is choked with traffic underneath it. This section of Parramatta Road continues with the usual miscellaneous collection of businesses. At the top of the hill there’s the Lewisham Hotel, still called The Haunted Castle by some after its days as a heavy metal venue in the 1990s. It may no longer be the venue for Sadistik Execution gigs but it is still the only pub in Lewisham. In the late 19th century staunch temperance advocate George Crothers bought up every vacant corner block in Lewisham that he thought might be a likely pub location, leaving it with only the Lewisham Hotel compared to the dozens of pubs in surrounding suburbs.
The Lewisham Hotel still has a rather haunted atmosphere, with its grey facade and blinds drawn across the windows. Mostly this stretch of the road is an assortment of warehouses: mechanics’ workshops, a tile place, a stonemason with a concrete David by the entrance. To one side of the overpass there used to be a lot full of garden ornaments, the storage yard for a store called Architectural Decor. There were gazebos and birdbaths, planters and trellises. For a while there was a giant concrete chicken which I looked for every time I went past.
The chicken and the gazebos are gone now, replaced by piles of real estate signs, dozens of sold properties neatly stacked in tall piles. I walk down off the bridge and onto the path beside them. It’s Saturday morning and the road is choked with cars. Drivers sit grimacing or straining to look for any possible movement ahead. Others are slumped, resigned to the wait. All across town in the last few weeks have been ads picturing gridlock scenes just like this, with the warning that there will be 1 million more people in Sydney in 10 years. Between the stalled traffic and the piles of real estate signs, I walk the thin, concrete path like a tightrope.
The path curves around the back of the lot, following the bend of the road. Directly beside it is a patch of plants growing lushly after the recent rain: fennel, asparagus fern, athsma weed, grass weeds. Twisted into it is the usual roadside trash, packets and scraps of plastic and paper, and a twisted canvas banner advertising a banner printing service with a woman’s face with red lips and big sunglasses, dirty water pooled in its folds.
In this unlovely place, growing across the fence, are hundreds of pink roses. They drift across the wire panels, buds and blooms pale clusters against the green thicket. The roses nod on long stems as bees hover about them and their scent fades in and out over the smell of car exhaust. They bloom despite their rubbishy surroundings and their lack of a gardener’s attention. Their wildness makes them even more lovely.
I duck under the railing, fighting the self consciousness of having a line of idling cars behind me. Carefully I step down through the weeds towards the roses. Thorns snag my sleeve as I reach in to pick one. A car horn honks and I turn around to catch the eye of a man in a ute, his eyebrows raised. He’s about to yell something but the traffic starts to move and he has to drive onwards.
The sign at the end of the bridge says all traffic must turn left but I can walk in any direction I choose with my bouquet of roses. I cross through the cars and head into the pocket of houses hemmed in by the roads, the canal and the railway line. At the edge of the grid of houses a billboard for Lynx deoderant is framed by the kudzu vines which cover the nearby fence and trees. BRING THE QUIET says the billboard, an alien message in this busy place, fooling no-one.
The theatre is a surprising sight on a corner of long, straight Blaxcell Street, which is mostly lined with cottages and small apartment buildings. It rises from the street corner like a magnificent coral, pale pink with letters curling across the roof. They still spell out “Crest”, although it has long ceased to be a cinema with that name. The Crest is now the owned by the Blouza Association, a Lebanese community group with origins in the town of Blaoza in North Lebanon. The roundels that once spelled out Hoyts on the front fin of the cinema now spell out Blouza, and the hall occasionally hosts the group’s functions. Most of the time, though, the hall is closed and only glimpses of the elegant foyer can be had by peeking through the doors.
In the first half of the twentieth century Sydney had a proliferation of local cinemas. Of these only a few remain, like the Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace in Cremorne and the Randwick Ritz. In the 60s and 70s many were demolished and replaced by shopping centres, petrol stations or carparks, others remain in new guises as furniture barns or crumbling ruins. The Crest’s persistence is a rare thing. Perhaps its longevity is partly due to it being built rather late in the suburban cinema boom. It was one of the few to open in the 1940s, and while it ceased to be a cinema in the 60s, it has remained faithful to its art deco origins.
The hall is not often open to the public but one Sunday it was the venue for a science fiction and collectables fair. While my companion eagerly awaited the crates of comics and Dr Who paraphernalia I was curious to see what lay inside the hall. The foyer with its pink plasterwork details and aluminium-clad art deco bar I’d already seen from peeking through the door, but not the hall itself. After paying my entrance fee I stopped in the doorway in surprise. The hall was like a pale pink seashell, the ceiling patterned with little anemone-like circles and the walls had plaster details like trails of delicate seaweed. It was a Botticelli Venus kind of place, even with its tables of He-Man figurines and Star Wars merchandise.
As people browsed the stalls – a cosplay girl dressed as Poison Ivy, father and son figurine enthusiasts, an elderly woman holding a just-purchased Chucky doll – I sat on the stage steps and imagined the Crest’s various incarnations. In the 1950s it was a cinema showing westerns and romances, then it was a bingo hall and a ballroom, hired out for functions and weddings. In some ways it seems strange that so much detail was lavished on a cinema interior. Wherever a decorative detail could be included in the design it had been, the air vents with “H” shaped grilles over them and every doorway framed with fronds and curls.
The streets surrounding the Crest are a suburban grid of 20th century cottages. Some have neat gardens with tall cacti and hydrangeas, others weeds and the sunken frames of cars not destined to drive anywhere ever again. On one corner is a solid red brick house with a sagging but still intact paling fence. I can see through the slats that the garden is a quarter acre block of lawn which stretches out like a carpet. Only a few small mango trees interrupt the expanse of green.
Each garden has a specific detail to distinguish it, whether a pristine lawn or row of statement conifers. The houses are the kinds of places that are animated on Sunday afternoons when families come to visit grandparents, or early in the morning when it’s the best time for watering the garden. In the heat of the day there are few people out. Two kittens tumble in a driveway, pausing to stare at me as I pass by. Mango trees are covered in small, green fruit. Here are there are 50s suburban flourishes, a concrete swan or an ornamental letterbox. The Belle View mixed business on Blaxcell Street has a sign offering provisions, smokes, sweets, drinks and ice creams, but the shutters are down and have been so for years.
Granville is a curious mixture of details, reflecting its industrial heritage, its suburban environment and various communities. It’s the location of union headquarters, the Vietnam Veterans Federation of Australia, and the mysterious R.A.O.B G.L.E meeting hall (the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes Grand Lodge of England – antediluvian is not a word you expect to encounter on a suburban wander). This version of Granville is one of societies and allegiances. There are many other versions: a place where every second shop sells Lebanese bread from the Beirut Bakery, a place that at times has been known as run down and dangerous, once described by the local mayor ‘the most urban decayed area in Sydney’. I walk past a big old burnt out apartment building and this seems true for a moment, but then around the corner the Veterans are setting up for their Christmas party, people walk back to their cars with boxes of chicken from El Jannah and the cottages on Mary Street have roses in their gardens. All of these versions coexist.
On the south side the legend JESUS SAVES is painted in large black letters on all sides of a church hall. On the north side is another, similarly large and stark painted text, though this one has message MONEY LENT. The Money Lent building is one of numerous Granville’s yellow buildings, which stand out like they’ve been highlighted: The Barn office furniture on Parramatta Road, Silly Willy’s $2 Man. At the backs of buildings ghost signs advertise chemist shops, lino and Presto smallgoods. On this sign slices of ham are cut from the side of a cheerful, chubby pig.
On the other side of the train station is another shopping street, Good Street. This is the Captain Cash MONEY LENT side, in close proximity to Parramatta Road and its stultifying effect on all but furniture stores and caryards. On this stretch of the street is a curious mixture of businesses, the Himalayan Restaurant in the old School of Arts Building, the Anawim Opportunity shop where a regular shopper deliberates over buying a large folding fan and the staff tease her about the fan dance she will be performing later that night.
Of all shops on Good Street, however, it is the Heaven on Earth Holy Store which is the most striking. Heaven on Earth sells religious statuary and catering supplies. On one side of the store are the saint statues, rosaries, and crucifixes, and on the other are stainless steel pans, glassware, and cooking contraptions, interspersed with more religious statuary and other giftware: carved wooden horses, ceramic chameleons. The store smells of incense and the shelves are cluttered with so many things that my eyes skip manically over them, from salt and pepper shakers to gift mugs with Porches on them, to pile of plates and giant rosaries. I’m not the first to discover the visual cacophony of Heaven on Earth; the store has many signs forbidding photographs.
Good Street crosses Parramatta Road and it’s here I cut through the corner lot. Like many of the lots in this area it’s a car yard, with rows of cheap cars lined up on the cracked and weedy concrete. This westernmost section of Parramatta Road is mostly car yards and furniture stores. The used car salesman stay in their air conditioned sheds until buyers appear, but no one much is around. Two boys walk along with Slurpees, a man dashes between caryards with a numberplate in a plastic sleeve dangling over his shoulder. Otherwise the road is a surging and cluttering stream of cars and trucks.
I head up towards Boral Concrete to see if the kangaroos are still there. They are concrete kangaroos, of course, few creatures venture to approach the busy road. Even as a human it’s difficult enough. I walk underneath the rail underpass, a terrifying 50 metres where there is only a thin pavement between a brick wall and the traffic. I pause at the edge of it like I’m about to plunge into a pool, waiting for the traffic to ease before rushing through. On the other side is a grim scene with police tape and scaffolding, the remains of a past accident. The garden bed where the kangaroos were is overgrown and it’s hard to see much through the fence. They are gone, perhaps, or buried underneath the long grass.
On the other side of the road is a more reliable mascot, Fiona the mannequin, who has been the guardian of RA Motors “Sydney’s Cheapest Cars” since 1983. It being late December she is dressed as Santa Claus. Above her black flags with skulls and crossbones in Santa hats flap in the wind and she is joined by a child-size mannequin dressed as a Christmas elf tied to a pylon. Now is the time to enjoy such spectacles, as there is in the planning 19,000 new high rise apartment homes for the Granville section of Parramatta Road by 2050.
If now Granville is the place to buy a cheap used car, in the past it was known for its connections to the railways. From 1905 Australian steam and diesel trains on Australian railways were built in Granville at the Clyde Engineering Company. This was one of the area’s major employers, and the largest engineering manufacturer in the country at the time. Clyde Engineering made everything from trains to agricultural machinery, planes and lawnmowers. In their heyday company ran a popular exhibit at Sydney Royal Easter Shows to showcase their newest contraptions.
Granville’s other significant railway story is one of tragedy. In 1977 the Bold Street overpass was the site of Australia’s worst train disaster. 83 people died and hundreds were injured when a train travelling from the Blue Mountains derailed and hit the supports of the overpass, causing the bridge to collapse . Photographs show the huge buckled slabs of the road on top of the tracks, the jackknifed carriages, crowds of emergency service personnel, and stretchers laid out. Crowds of people looked down from behind the wire fence along Railway Parade.
The disaster happened before I was born but was still very much in the public consciousness when I was child in the 1980s. My mother, still horrified by reports of the disaster many years on, would sometimes recall the story one of the last people to be rescued, a young woman who was a ballet dancer. The photograph of the woman being lifted, smiling, from the wreck after 9 hours trapped was one of the most well known images from the disaster and her story became of the best known of the survivors’. Her story was one of many tragedies, as her injuries were substantial and ended her dancing career.
Each anniversary of the disaster 83 roses are offered in tribute to the victims. Until his death this year, the same local priest who in 1977 pulled people from the wreckage blessed the roses. The roses, after being blessed, are dropped from Railway Parade onto the tracks below, their red petals bright against the gravel.
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.
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.
Besides the Olympia Milk Bar, one of Parramatta Roads enduring mysteries is Ligne Noire perfumerie at number 247 Parramatta Road, Annandale. An 80s time capsule, Ligne Noir has never, in the time I have known it, been open, although if the shop were functioning as normal, going inside would perhaps be less exciting than peering through the bars.
Inside are displays of stagnating bath salts and perfumed lotions, soaps decaying from the heat of many summers. One cabinet is filled with the signature Ligne Noire products, in black packages with the name embossed in silver. Other products remind me of the scents sold in chemists in the 1980s, which give them, in my mind, a kind of medicinal aura: Old Spice, Drakkar Noir, Royal Navy. Beyond the bath goods are racks of bright 80s clothes, handbags, glomesh purses, and cases of costume jewellery, most still displayed on the racks as if one day the owner might wake from a twenty year sleep and open up shop again.
A pile of clothes is draped over one of the counters, as if in mid-stocktake, and a pile of never-opened mail grows more faded and dusty, their messages long expired. The displays are as they were, cellophane collecting dust and signs fading to nothingness while the windows are zigzagged with graffiti.
Last week another masterplan for turning Parramatta Road into a tree lined boulevard and “liveability corridor” was unleashed. The plan, as many of these plans do, aimed to return the road to its days as a retail and residential strip rather than a thoroughfare lined with decrepit buildings and flagged with for sale signs. Before the construction of shopping malls in the 1970s, Parramatta Road was lined with businesses of all kinds; this was where people came to buy clothes, have their hair cut, buy electrical goods, all the things that are now agglomerated into malls. Parramatta Road is now regarded as one of Sydney’s ugliest places, a varicose vein in the body of the city, a problem to be fixed.
While no one could argue with descriptions of its congestion and deterioration, it is equally a place that rewards the curious. It’s decay has transformed it into a place of unexpected treasures, there to discover until the day the demolition team arrive.
As I stand peering through the windows of Ligne Noir, in a reverie about a black and white gingham Miss Shop bodysuit, someone walks past behind me and I jump. Staring through the window at the objects inside is to enter into a different world, and it is easy to forget the real one outside. The person who surprised me slows down, curious about what I am looking at, before continuing on to the kebab shop a few doors down. It was not, as I had for a moment thought, the owner come to claim their shop. Whoever they are we are free to imagine, and this is the reward of such mysterious places, the web they cast of memory and fiction. We can imagine it as a crime scene photograph, a movie set, a portal into another time, or just a dusty abandoned shop.
Near the door, in front of an 80s air conditioner, is the stalk of a fake plant, festooned with pastel ribbon rosettes. In the corner of one of the displays, a soft toy koala wearing a straw hat stares out mournfully. A Snap Printing calendar visible behind the counter shows 1996. This is my favourite Sydney museum, a slice of retail past preserved from the days of gift boxed bath salts and talcum powder, there for anyone who cares to peer through the windows.
I dedicate this post to Emily and Raquel, once of Duke magazine, who wrote about this store in their magazine – it was nice to think that someone else had noticed, and they with their amazing home museum of everything would be the natural inheritors of Ligne Noir. . .