Department Store Dreams

This year I have been a Visiting Writer with the Sydney Review of Books at the State Library of NSW, although, earlier in the year, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to visit in person this year at all.  In late March lockdown measures were put in place and the library was closed.  But after a few months, as Covid case-numbers fell and the situation improved, the library re-opened and I masked up and ventured into the reading room.

I based my research around Sydney department stores, and particularly David Jones, inspired by the novel The Women in Black by Madeleine St John. I’d read this novel again during the lockdown months and it gave me cause to reflect on the significance of department stores within the city, as part of people’s everyday and working lives.

You can read ‘In the Catalogue‘, the essay I wrote on department store archives and The Women in Black, at the Sydney Review of Books. To write it I made weekly trips to the library, spending days in the reading room looking through catalogues and ephemera. While I was in the city I also went to visit David Jones, following the trails of my memory.

One of my strongest childhood memories is visiting David Jones with my mother, travelling into the the city on the train and walking through a labyrinth of arcades from Town Hall station, to arrive at the Elizabeth Street store. In the shoe department I’d look out the window, over the treetops of Hyde Park, and feel a transformed sense of perspective on the city.

I was entranced by the wide, dark mass of the fig trees, and the arches of the cathedral beyond (it had no spires in those days, as these were added in 2000). It was my first memory of seeing the city as a place that could hold many different areas and moods at once and a foundational one for the work I would go on to do. There is still so much to go in search of.

The World’s Largest Atlas

In Australia’s largest city, inside its largest library, is the world’s largest atlas. The book rests open at an image of the globe, the sweep of continents from Africa to Australia. People stand around it, taking photos and discussing the size of Kazakhstan, reading the names of cities and localities they had never before heard of. To those examining this vast world map the grand interior of the Mitchell Reading Room, with its lofty skylight, stained glass windows and book-lined walls are momentarily forgotten. Largest Atlas 1

The atlas is one of an edition of 31 published in 2012 by the Sydney publishing company Millenium House. The publisher (and author of an award winning book about carnivorous plants), Gordon Cheers, was inspired by seeing the Klencke Atlas of 1660 in the British Library. Until this new atlas the Klenke had been the largest in the world. But now the Earth Platinum atlas, at 1.8 metres tall and 2.7 metres across when open, is officially the world’s largest.


The atlas is quite a novelty. Some have come deliberately to see it, others are surprised to discover a huge, detailed image of the earth at the foot of the stairs that lead up to the upper levels of the reading room. As I stand examining the ridges in the Indian Ocean a woman comes up leading a little girl, who is walking along with her eyes shut. They stop in front of the atlas and the woman says “now – open your eyes!” The atlas is big enough to swallow the girl whole; she is impressed by sight of the enormous book.

People drift in from the linked open data conference that’s going on in the meeting rooms, their nametags identifying the far away places they have come from. A girl with her laptop in camera mode comes by and asks a man from Iowa to take her photo. She hands over the laptop and gets into position, standing beside the atlas, smiling and giving the thumbs up.

Inlaid into the floor of the library’s entrance hall is another often photographed cartographical curiosity. It’s a marble terrazzo reproduction of the 17th century Tasman Map, one of the treasures of the library’s collection. It shows the two voyages of Dutch explorer Abel Tasman and the incomplete outline of the southern continent that came to be known as Australia. The irregular shape, open to the ocean on the eastern side where the lines break off, has an eccentric look, as if land and sea have merged.

Tasman Map 1

When Tasman was charting the coastline this land was understood entirely differently. On the map of his voyages it appears as insubstantial as a tracing. For Europeans the southern continent was a mystery and a potential colonial resource. Examining the map I try to fill it in, imagine it as country. For the hundreds of Aboriginal clans who populated the continent, it had been their lands for at least 40,000 years.

The marble map, like the atlas, is roped off and I peer down onto it at the Latin inscriptions, spouting sea monsters and the outlines of Tasman’s ships, the Zeehaen and Heemskerck. I look across the brown marble ocean and the red outline of the incomplete continent. The marble was quarried at Wombeyan, the colour chosen for its similarity to the aged paper of the map. Other marble came from elsewhere, green serpentine from Tasmania, black marble from Yass. It was constructed in 1939 by Melocco Brothers, who created marble interiors for St Marys Crypt and many prominent city buildings.

Tasman Map 2

Stepping outside again it’s a bright winter day. Having been staring at the entirety of the world in a book, then a long-ago ocean voyage frozen in marble, the real landscape appears almost hyperreal.

There’s a lull in the traffic and I dash across the six lane road in front of the library that is called, improbably, Shakespeare Place. Under the command of their personal trainers people are jogging on the spot under the date palms at the corner of the Botanic Gardens. I head past them and away, down the hill, towards the harbour.

On the way home I stop at Central Station and go in search the other Melocco Brothers terazzo map. It’s a map of Australia amid a green marble sea, the coastline meticulous. The land, each state a different shade of marble, is veined with the red lines of railway routes. It and a series of marble friezes depicting scenes from Australian history decorate what was once the booking office. Now the booking office is elsewhere and the map is partially obscured by the food court tables and chairs. A family sit in Victoria eating burgers. Pigeons traverse New South Wales pecking up french fries.

Central Station Melocco

The Earth Platinum Atlas is on display in the State Library of NSW until July 19th.