There are two areas to shop in Penrith, the grey hulk of the Westfield shopping centre or High Street, a long, straight street of shops with arcades leading off it like secret passageways.
Westfield has the predictable atmosphere shared by mega malls the world over: a repetition of chain retailers in a climate controlled environment, sealed away from the world outside. The businesses that don’t fit into Westfield populate High Street.
This is the part of town with the op shops, party supplies and hobby stores, the new age shops, bargain stores and independent retailers. Along High Street there are at least 14 arcades, making it the most arcade-heavy shopping area in greater Sydney. They are not the Victorian-era arcades that might immediately come to mind upon hearing the word, but rather their 1960s and 70s equivalents, built at a time when the boundaries of Sydney’s suburban sprawl were stretching towards the west. Large malls were new on the scene and slowly began to appear around Sydney, but small suburban shopping arcades sprung up all over the suburbs.
If there is one person whose name will be forever linked with arcades and what they represent it is Walter Benjamin. His unfinished Arcades Project is a vast collection of ideas, aphorisms and fragments gathered about and around the Parisian arcades of the nineteenth century. When Benjamin began the project in the 1920s the Paris arcades were well in decline. It was their anachronistic, mysterious presence that attracted him, and in his earliest writing on the arcades he refers to them as “a past become space”, full of mysterious signs, strange objects, “antiquated trades” and vacant stores containing only few traces of their previous occupants. Despite the differences in time and location, Penrith’s arcades share something of this mystery and link to the past. What kinds of signs and objects do they contain?
A Penrith Arcades Project must begin with Memory Mall, which has round neon signs spelling out its name in cursive above each entrance. The arcade derives its name from Memory Park across the street, with its war memorial, palm trees, and annual dawn service on Anzac Day. Memorial parks are a fairly common civic place, but a memory mall isn’t so clear a connection. What kinds of memories come along with malls? Memory Mall makes me recall my 1980s childhood and visiting shopping arcades with their potted plants (which I’d test to see if they were real), little specialist shops, and atmosphere of extended domesticity: there was something about these arcades that was almost like a house in their mixture of public and private, interior and exterior.
High Street Penrith has long been a shopping street and in some ways it isn’t so different today from how it was in the 1920s, when tea rooms, barbers, bakeries and estate agencies lined it. By the 1950s there were Greek milk bars and a movie theatre and electricals stores where people would cluster to watch the televisions through the windows. By the 1970s, Penrith had a Penrith Plaza, a shopping mall that was the precursor to today’s Westfield, and the High Street shops had been tunnelled through with arcades.
In 1985 High Street was blocked off to traffic and made into a pedestrian mall. The slogan of High Street Mall was “It’s bright, it’s friendly, it’s yours”, and a series of brightly coloured canopies were erected between the stores. This was to only last ten years, and by 1996, the street was open to traffic again, although the arcades remained.
While some arcades, like Memory Mall, are populated with businesses others are ghostly, such as the Nepean Walkway Arcade. The Nepean Walkway and the now unsignposted Carvan Arcade across from it are the easternmost of the High Street arcades. Nepean Walkway keeps its roller shutter partially down and its entrance is flanked by a tobacconist and a funeral parlour.
The majority of the shops are for lease, apart from Lorraine’s. The hand made sign for Lorraine’s describes the merchandise as “hand made baby’s wear and pretty dolls”. Peering through the window, as the store is shut, I can see this for myself. Lorraine’s sells hand knitted baby jumpers, devotional items, tapestries and 70s beauty guides. These are displayed on a series of long tables in a jumble of objects and bright colours. As I peer in, the beady eyes of a trio of nun dolls, wearing knitted black habits, stare back at me.
Further along High Street, past Memory Park, is another arcade, The Cottage Lane.
The awning displays the names of previous businesses – Floraison Design, Power of Beauty, Devine Creations – as well as the one remaining listed business, Prima Ballerina ballet shop. It is next to Behind the Mask Fancy Dress store, with a window display of masks and a leering Incredible Hulk on the sign at the back of the arcade. The Cottage Lane is Penrith’s fantasy arcade, where people come for their tutus, masks and costumes. Across from these stores is a mainstay of Penrith’s arcades, a new age store, this one offering psychic readings. A hand made sign spells out “please come in and say hi” in sparkly letters, with the rates for half hour and hourly readings.
I have no need to consult my fate, I know it, at least for the next few hours. I leave The Cottage Lane and take a few steps to the entrance of the NK Centre, the next arcade.
The NK Centre is a solid, brick building with arched windows on the upper storey, tinted so there is no clue as to what goes on inside. The NK Centre has a store which also offers psychic readings, but the most activity occurs in two shops at the back of the arcade, where the cake decorating store faces off against the wool shop. Which hobby will I choose?
Inside the Wool Inn, a queue of people wait at the counter for advice from women wearing hand knitted jumpers. The store is stacked with plump balls of wool and knitting patterns, in as much abundance as the cake tins and figurines in One Stop Cake Decorations across the arcade. I choose the cake decorating shop, never having been a knitter, and look through drawers of plastic decorations spelling out “Happy Birthday”, a rack of every imaginable shape of cookie cutter, cake tins shaped like ladybugs and monsters, and shelves of figurines: bowlers, ice skating couples, football players.
These stores sell small pieces of future. One Stop Cake Decorations contains the potential of celebrations yet to come, birthdays, successes and surprises, as the Wool Inn holds the potential of future jumpers. The neatly stacked balls of wool will be transformed into thick winter cardigans, or novice knitters’ first scarves.
To walk through the NK Centre arcade, under the yellow grid pattern light fittings which stripe the arcade’s ceiling every few metres, is to pass the inscructable black shopfront of “Your Best Life C3 Church”, counsellors’ rooms, and Buddhist statues in the gift shop. The NK Centre is the arcade of hobbies and spiritual guidance.
Back out on High Street, across from the NK Centre, is an old sign just visible behind the protruding boards advertising Nepean Pizzas and Charcoals above the awning. Words are painted in the arches above the three windows:
Pelmets. Blinds. Advice.
This is the sign of a long-gone store (a pelmet, for those who don’t know, and this included me until now, is the piece of fabric that goes along the top of the window to hide the curtain rail), I imagine this store as having the same kind of function as the psychic services in the arcades: their advice extending beyond curtains. Who better to offer advice than those expert in concealing and revealing what goes on inside buildings?
This part of High Street has the highest density of arcades. As I walk down the street I look for their entrances: some are more obvious than others. The High Street entrance of Elizabeth Arcade is an unassuming doorway with a few signs for the businesses to be found within. Every arcade’s entrance is also an exit, and each arcade has two faces, the face it turns to High Street and the face it turns to the carparks and laneways behind them. Even if people don’t shop in the arcades they use them as thoroughfares, and in the more dimly lit arcades the people at the opposite end look like advancing shadows.
Elizabeth Arcade is one of Penrith’s blue arcades. The High Street facade is painted pale blue and the carpark-facing side is royal blue, with round-edged signs that look like giant capsules with the names of businesses printed on them: Ye’s Shoes, Elizabeth Arcade Book Shop. Outside the bookstore people browse the cheap books on tables in the arcade, novels, guidebooks, pet owners’ manuals and gift books. Propped up among these is a copy of a book that every household must have owned in the 1970s, for there are so many of them secondhand: Dinkum Dunnies.
High Street’s other blue arcades are Broadwalk, an open arcade on the other side of the street from Elizabeths, and the Calokerinos Arcade, its angular blue roofline the same colour as the sky. Calokerinos is now permanently closed, shutters down, awaiting redevelopment, even though of all the arcades it has the most stylish facade.
One of the mainstays of Penrith’s arcades are hairdressers, and most arcades include at least one barber or hair salon. Of all of them, Rod’s Hair Shoppe in the City Central Arcade has the most ingenious signage. At the carpark entrance to the arcade the drainage downpipe has been painted to look like a barber’s pole. Rod’s Hair Shoppe, in which a couple of fidgety boys sit waiting for their haircuts, is next to another salon, Male Look Hairdressing, although on closer inspection, Rod seems to run both premises. Next to Male Look is yet another hairdresser, Afro Varieties, where a woman is having her hair plaited into many tiny rows.
In the Parker Arcade across the street there are more salons, Exquisite Hair and Beauty, with roses painted on the window and another men’s salon, Man About Town “gents hair stylist”. I imagine the clients of these men’s salons to be something like this man from Maxim’s Hairdressing, back in the Nepean Walkway. Hopefully if another business rents this shop they will keep him on the window.
Upstairs in the Parker Arcade is the college where you learn to cut hair before your graduate to working in the arcades, Active Career College. Many of the arcades have businesses upstairs, small colleges or solicitors offices, places which offer services rather than products and can hide away above street level. The stairwells leading to these upper levels, with their exposed bricks and worn steps, lead me to imagine 70s style offices with clunky telephones and secretaries wiping dust from the leaves of indoor plants.
On the corner of Station Street is the Penrith Centre, the largest structure of all the arcades, with pebblecrete rendering and shingle tile awnings. Inside the arcade the floor is made of alternate panels of brown tiles and linoleum, with parlour palms (real) in pots beside burgundy benches. Outside Polly’s Beads, yet another arcade hobby shop, there is a set of rigid-looking tables and chairs, painted in the same burgundy. Although the arcades have many stylistic similarities: strip lighting, brown tiles, ceilings made up of white striped panelling, each has a particularity – a colour, an atmosphere – to discern it from the others.
Skipton’s Arcade, across from the Penrith Centre, also features pebblecrete but differs from the other arcades in that it has an atrium in the centre, letting in the daylight. Pebblecrete stairs lead to the upper levels and the real estate coaching business, as well as the Penrith Guitar School. This must be the place to go to learn classical guitar, judging by their elegant logo of an acoustic guitar resting against an open book of sheet music. The G4 Guitar School back in the City Centre Arcade teaches a different style of guitar.
The final arcade on High Street is Riverlands, at the end of High Street.
Across from Riverlands the grey wall of Westfield stretches out, seemingly endlessly, behind a screen of eucalypts. There’s a quilting store, Hair Fanatics “fanatical about your hair”, and The Shoe Shed, with a window display of one of every possible kind of women’s flat shoe: leopard print with bows, fluoro yellow with black studs on the toe, pink with a decorative buckle. Next to the Shoe Shed is Derby Skates, a Roller Derby supply store, the doors decorated with a large image of a group of sneering Derby women in skates, making it impossible to look through and see if anyone was inside.
I walk through Riverlands Arcade to the carpark, where a sign listing the businesses inside (some still there, some not) is moored among the rows of cars. It includes three hair salons and a sewing shop, a bowls shop and a “coffee house”. Has the roller derby store replaced the bowls shop? I ponder this for a moment, then turn and retrace my steps to High Street, at the end of my arcades adventure.
Having zig zagged my way through the tiled and pebbled interior of High Street, I look back along it. The buildings are a patchwork of different facades with landmarks standing out from the rest: the Penrith Centre, the bright blue fin of the Calorkerinos Arcade roof, an old ad for Reuben F. Scarf Hand Tailored Suits, the serifed letters of SUITS golden in the afternoon sun. People walking down High Street disappear into arcades, to have their hair cut or buy cake decorating supplies, or just to walk back to their cars, past the pretty dolls in Lorraine’s and the temptation of a psychic reading, and the For Lease signs that make them remember what used to be there, or imagine what might be.