Tales of Tempe Tip

If there’s one type of place I am commonly drawn to, it is places on the margins: otherwise ignored, or soon to disappear, or discarded. Sometimes these places are also literally on the margins, in the outer suburbs, or on the edge of the city.

The Salvation Army store in Tempe is both. It is literally on the edge of the city, at the very last patch of the suburban land before the outskirts of the airport begins. Inside the warehouse that is the store and sorting centre are the discarded objects of Sydney residents, an abundance of clothes and furniture and bric a brac. Sydney has plenty of op shops, but this is one is certainly the most famous, so well known that it has, with its nickname “Tempe Tip”, become a cultural reference point.

The first references to the op shop as Tempe Tip appear in newspapers in the 1960s. The name was taken from the rubbish dump next door to the Salvation Army depot, and soon Tempe Tip became synonymous with the op shop, rather than with its original identity. Some of the newspaper mentions are utilitarian, advising newlyweds with little money to visit the Tempe Tip in order to furnish their houses. It is also mentioned in lifestyle articles, describing how people gather in corners at parties to talk about Tempe tip and the secondhand furniture bargains they found there. It’s the place to go for props and costumes, too. In 1971 the visiting Zorba Song and Dance company bought 10000 plates to be broken on stage in what was described as the “uninhibited finale” to their performance.

The Tempe Tip is also something of a local slang term, used to denigrate the quality of goods or clothing. If something “looks like it came from the Tempe Tip”, for example, it is no doubt shabby and strange. It was also used to denote poor quality in general. In 1966 the Sydney Morning Herald reviewer of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” declared that:

He has moved into a fuzzy world of songs which abound in personal fantasies. His voice has contracted to a mumble. His accompaniments are a scattered jumble which sounds as though they were recorded at the Tempe tip. We know that artists must be permitted to change their approach, but this is ridiculous.

My favourite articles about Tempe Tip describe the scene on Saturday morning, as people waited to be let inside the gates. In a Sydney Morning Herald article from 1982, “On Your Marks at Tempe Tip”, the scene is described in detail:

The waiting crowd is stacked impatiently behind a cyclone wire fence which heaves, stretches and sags with their weight. Promptly at 11, Charles H. Jolly, in a straw cowboy hat and a pink western shirt, opens the gates and stands back as a 200-strong crowd stampedes in search of cut-price treasure. The battle for a bargain at Tempe Tip, the Salvo’s Miroma thrift shop, is fiercer than the struggle at Harrod’s spring sale: people push, pull, scream and swear territorially over their secondhand goodies. 

In the 1980s the Tempe Tip’s opening hours were 11am – 2:30 during the week, and on Saturdays what was described as a “brief, exciting” two hours from 7:30am to 9:30am. Another article describes how :

You had to be young, fit and wearing your running shoes to race people sprinting in to get the best bargains.

The Salvation Army first moved onto this land in 1909, and set up a Prison Gate Farm here, providing employment for newly-released prisoners. A plan for a piggery was approved by the council in 1909, despite the objections from the nearby bakery which worried that “any offensive odours floating about in the air were liable to find their way into the dough when it was in a state of ferment, and would be in the bread when baked”.

The farm activities wound down and the site became a secondhand goods market. The name Tempe Tip came and stuck, and is still the affectionate term for the op shop that is there today. The shop is a large, low warehouse, painted royal blue with red awnings.

Just beyond it is a view of the edge of the airport and planes moving slowly from their hangars. Trucks go past at all times of the day and night, carrying shipping containers back and forth from the terminal at the end of Swamp Road, through a landscape of shipping containers, pampas grass, and the tall yellow pylons that support the landing lights for the runway.

Swamp Road Scene

The first time I came to Tempe Tip was some time in the 1990s and I thought it a kind of op shop heaven. The scene inside was much calmer than the crush of waiting shoppers against the wire fence in the 1980s, but it was no less exciting to me, newly moved out of home. I bought armfuls of clothes, baskets of bric a brac and a big round coffee table, a metre and a half across, with a copper top carved with hieroglyphics. A friend of mine with a van, a goth who played in a Birthday-Party-esque band, helped me convey this enormous table home. I liked to imagine the 1970s lounge room this table had once been a part of, something that would be pictured in one of the kitsch home decorating guides that I also bought in abundance from the Tempe Tip.

Furniture in limbo.

As I approach the entrance, I notice a man waiting out the front of the op shop. He is wearing a leather jacket with a logo on the back for the “Raging Dads”. His friend, another Raging Dad with tattoos and long hair, leaves the store with an armful of clothes and they push off with their baby strollers, their shopping trip complete. Mine has only just begun. It has been some time since I’ve been to Tempe Tip, but it works its magic over me as ever.

The store has its own atmosphere with the roar of planes overhead, the giant industrial fans suspended from the ceiling, and people intently browsing. A man discusses a Willow patterned platter with his elderly mother, who is holding a plastic bag of balls of mauve wool. A woman sizes up ceramic dog figurines, turning them over to look for maker’s marks on the paws. In the furniture section people move from couch to couch, testing them for comfort. A man with a bum-bag slung across his body like a holster pushes a shopping trolley past me, its contents an insect zapper and books by Deepak Chopra.

In between the planes flying by overhead, and the jangling sound of someone going through the cutlery, the radio plays U2s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. I keep looking. Tempe Tip will have it, even if I don’t know exactly what it is yet.

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The Tempe Anomaly

As you cross the railway bridge just north of Tempe station, there’s an ad for Odyssey Jeantown on the wall above the tracks. Odyssey Jeantown ads have lined railway overpassses for decades: they were on both sides of the railway bridge on Crystal Street, and there is still one across from Sydenham station, updated now and then but always featuring the same rodeo rider on the back of a bucking horse. In the 1990s my friends would go on pilgrimages there to buy tight black jeans, and it seemed a mythical place with its Homeric name and location in the midst of the industrial area of Marrickville.

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In the centre of a yellow arrow a rodeo rider is being thrown from his horse in the direction of Jeantown. But I must continue, my odyssey continues in the opposite direction. Next I pass a series of signs, blue arrows pointing in the direction of IKEA, like a trail of breadcrumbs.

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I resist these too. The object of my attention is something much closer and more unusual.

I first noticed the Anomaly looking out of a taxi window. This is the backstreet route to the airport and I was staring out, feeling the grip of the city already loosening as my time to depart approached. As my thoughts travelled off into my impending journey my eyes moved over the houses on Unwins Bridge Road. This row of houses is set uncomfortably close to the narrow, busy road, but is otherwise a typical inner west scene. The houses were once built to an identical design, brick with striped wooden gables, Queen Anne style. Each is now slightly different from its neighbours, the colour scheme, or the windows, one has a tall palm tree, another is decorated with bird cages hanging from its verandah. But there was one differing feature that stood out most of all.

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As I stared at the front fence of one of these houses, the bricks seemed to be moving. Crooked and topsy-turvy, the lines of bricks sloped up and down and anywhere but neatly across in straight lines, a suburban fence version of a magic eye picture. The traffic lights changed, and the taxi moved onwards, leaving the weird scene behind, and I filed it away for future investigation.

Now I’m back to inspect it. Just as it had months before, the anomaly comes in sight as the road curves over the railway tracks. It is as I remember it from the taxi window, the bricks in misshapen lines that seemed to move before my eyes. I walk down under the shade of the swamp oaks, along past the wire fence tangled with morning glory vine. A truck goes past, full of tyres and draped in tinsel, and the rubber smell of it hangs in the air for a moment. All the while, my eyes are fixed on the anomaly and its riotous bricks.

I cross the street to look at it more closely, and as I do, something unusual happens. The bricks, which looked so crooked and weird on approach now look straight. I stand staring at it, flummoxed by the illusion. Were the bricks crooked or straight, and how could they be both at the same time? I crossed back over the street, and walked up to the corner, and sure enough, the fence bricks were crooked again.

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If I am looking for an answer as to how this could be so, the opposite corner of the intersection has a suggestion. It is an overgrown patch of land with two billboards planted in it, one for ice cream, and one for Bickfords cordial. A giant hand grasps a bottle of red cordial and splashes it down into a tall, frosty glass. In the space underneath the bottle, words float: “Makes the Ordinary Extraordinary”. I took it as encouragement.

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Thank you for reading, following, commenting on and sharing Mirror Sydney this year, dear readers. Next year plenty of exciting things are in store: more stories, tours, and most exciting of all, a Mirror Sydney book.

For now, enjoy the romance and shadow, and I will see you in the new year.

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