The End of the Corner Store  

20190606_115135The other day when I was going for a walk I saw that the corner store, which closed last year, was being gutted. There were two blue bins outside and three or four men ripping out the shelving and the other accoutrements of a shop which had been there, I believe, for twenty-three years. It has the words ‘Growers Market’ in peeling letters above the façade but no-one ever called it that; ‘the corner store’ was a term you sometimes heard but only from those who weren’t regulars. Everyone else called it Tom and Tina’s, after the couple who, with the help of their three grown-up sons, ran it.

It’s a long low flat-roofed undistinguished building erected hastily, I am sure, after the demolition of some grand Victorian edifice which must once have stood in that prime position. The verandas are festooned with signs reading ‘Lycamobile’ and ‘Quarter Case Fruit Bar’—two old sponsorship deals I suppose—and round the corner there’s a blank wall and then a mural showing wild animals, including a frog, a rhinoceros, a tiger and an eagle, in an unconvincing landscape. There’s a weedy laneway behind and sometimes, on hot days, Tom would leave the roller door at the back of the shop open so that a cool breeze might blow through.

He and Tina are Vietnamese and how they came to be here I never found out. Boat people, perhaps. Tom was always affable, occasionally sardonic, with a penchant for proposing harmless non-sequiturs which, if you followed them, made him roar with laughter. He often wore a T shirt saying: ‘I Have the Body of a God’; and, underneath the image of a naked fat man: ‘Unfortunately the God is Buddha’. You could have long and entertaining conversations with him. He liked to boast that their shop was open 364 days a year—every day except Christmas. Tina hadn’t quite learned to speak English properly yet and was inclined to complain about her lot, though never in a way that seemed objectionable to me. ‘Too tired’, she would say, ruefully. Sometimes Tom would get impatient, and rebuke her, at which point she would sigh theatrically and raise her eyebrows. She liked a good gossip. I was fond of her too.

When they announced their shop was closing, Tom and Tina held a sale at which you could buy very cheaply the odd things they had gathering dust in the window: mortars and pestles, statues of Buddha, incense holders, lampshades. They also sold hardware: I bought light bulbs there, batteries and fuse wire, candles, kitchen utensils. Anything, really. Otherwise they were the place to go for herbs and spices—especially spices—and also sold the best fresh produce around here. Tom went to the markets at Flemington every morning and he was proud of his ability, for example, to seek out the most peppery rocket, the sweetest of peaches or grapes, the most succulent figs.

The other thing they did when they closed up was hold a street party. Two, in fact. One was on a Friday night and for it they cooked traditional Vietnamese dishes, including spring rolls in a delicious sauce, a green curry, and rice, which they served to passers-by on paper plates. I remember standing there with Doug, an Aboriginal man who used to live in a boarding house up the road, who looked at the exotic food on his plate then had a sip of lemonade instead. The other party was on Sunday arvo but I was away for the weekend and couldn’t go. It was their way of thanking us for hosting them all those years.

They were leaving to open a restaurant in Cabramatta and its name is still emblazoned there, in pink writing, on the front window: MiGo. Full name: Saigon Hu Tieu Mi Go. A council notice on that front window suggested the building would become a boarding house but the notice has gone now and I doubt that is going to happen. The word on the street is that the owner wanted to add two more levels on top of what is already there but that it’s not structurally sound enough to take the weight. I anticipate demolition and yet another noisy building site in this rapidly gentrifying suburb.

The demise of Tom and Tina’s made me think of other places I’ve seen disappear over the decade or so I’ve lived here. There was an art gallery across the road which always had interesting, if traditional, work on the walls. I saw a Shay Docking show there once. Max, the owner, is still around, walking with a stick and looking a bit more frail each time I see him. The Rio, the legendary milk bar, is now a bar of another kind, serving wine and beer and spirits but I am yet to go in there.

If I drink, and I do, I drink at Temperance, on the other side of the premises of Thomas the Tailor; who fixed my leather jacket the other day and, by the bye, told me he knew the man who made the green silk suit jacket I was wearing. His place was next to Our Lady of the Snows, underneath Central Station. I bought the suit at St Vinnie’s, just up the road, for not much years ago now. Francois, International Hairdresser, has also gone, driven by high rents out to Hurlstone Park. A pathologist has the premises now. I used to lease my parking space to Francois but twice he scraped his brand new Subaru on the bricks while negotiating the tight corner at the end of the drive and so gave it up.

Keshaw has moved the Post Office that was at the bottom of the street to smaller premises down the road (rent again) and the building is now a Physiotherapy Clinic; the old style salon where Ray, a rock ‘n’ roller, always had his hair cut, is now a Tax Accountant; the shop next door, which sold trissy knick-knacks, became a Diabetic Centre that never took off and is another hairdresssers, Tina’s, where the eponymous custodian waits all day for unwary hairies to come in.

Round the corner, where Rick Rack Retro used to be—fifties and sixties décor, with an excellent second hand bookshop upstairs—is a dog grooming place. Judy still has the business but runs it out of Newcastle now. The original Post Office building, which was a bicycle factory when I first came here, is now a high-class restaurant, too expensive for me to eat at; across the road is a salon which does foot massages and trims toe-nails. Next door but one to that, a woman who specialises in eyebrows. There’s another manicurist around the corner, where the picture framing shop used to be.

Also on the main drag, the Inner West Council recently installed plaques in the pavement commemorating the longevity of certain businesses: the Pub, the Dentist, the Butcher and the Chemist have all been here for yonks. The Plumber’s supply shop up past Temperance too. I’d add to them the Florist, the TAB, the Newsagency and the Wine Shop. The Bank, which some say will be the next to close. It has. A good, if pricey, fruit and vegetable store. There’s a Tobacconist still; the Toy Shop, but that’s closing too; and the Fish and Chip shop. Several other hairdressers. A chiropractor. An optometrist and two medical centres. And the mysterious Inner West Music School, which I’ve never been able to find out anything about.

Most of the rest is restaurants: three pizzerias, an Indian takeaway, a Japanese lunch place (Fujiyama) that’s started opening in the evenings as well; a Thai (Thai Garn) and a Nepalese (The Hungry Eye) restaurant, both excellent; a shop selling Vietnamese street food, a Burger Bar, innumerable cafes (actually, seven; I counted them). The old pie shop is still there—my friend Miro used to call it Pog Palace—but the three bakeries we had, which were all superior, have gone. One was called The Happy Loaf, one was a Michel’s and the third was run by a Cambodian couple who made French-style shell rolls fresh every morning and sold them four for a dollar.

That place, however, has re-opened as a sandwich bar called Amour and they are making a mint selling pork and beef and chicken rolls to the tradies working on the new apartment complexes being erected at Lewisham West to the east of here. They also make very good sourdough bread. The Trading Circle, run by Four Brave Women, has moved across the road and now serves Iranian, Georgian and Ethiopian food as well as selling Third World manufactures.

The shop I most regret losing, after Tom and Tina’s, is the nameless one that was where the Flight Centre is now. Peter the Russian sold second hand furniture, among other things, and had an eye for the oddball. He was always coming up with pieces of art which he believed, or hoped, might be lost masterpieces which would make his fortune. They didn’t, but they were usually works of integrity, forgotten style pieces from the 1960s and 1970s. Peter was the son of a Green Cab driver. He moved to larger premises, above a mattress factory at the bottom of Toothill Street, but the mattress factory burned down (most likely an insurance job) and I don’t know what he does now. I still see him around; but, as with Max the former gallery owner, we greet each other politely but don’t converse.

A few years back I saw a photo of the main drag as it was a hundred years ago. There seemed to be an inordinate number of shops selling boots and shoes, cobbled on the premises and displayed in great profusion on racks outside. I guess people walked more thenn than we do now, and if they rode, rode a horse or in a buggy, a tram or a train.

In my own street, once removed from the main drag, Sands Directory recorded there were, in 1908, a builder, a dressmaker, a boot shop; a costumière, a fancy shop, another boot shop, a furniture shop; an undertaker, a dentist, another costumière; a wood-turner, a carpenter and two grocers. Now, apart from the Medical Centre on the corner and those three other places I mentioned, it’s all residential. Though there could be lawyers, architects or accountants further up which I haven’tnoticed yet. Also the Red Door gallery, run by a French woman called Jules, of whom I am fond.

I don’t want to fall prey to nostalgia. What’s the point? Change is the only constant. And, as if to underline that fact, late on the afternoon of another day, I was walking past Tom and Tina’s again and for some reason stopped to peer through the dusty window: and who should I see there in the murk and the gloom—but Tom! Out he comes and we shake hands. He says Tina’s well and their sons are too. He says the restaurant’s going gang-busters, they have four chefs and stay open until eleven every night. It’s no different, he says, I still just work all the time. And he laughs.

I go on my way and as I’m approaching my building I remember an old chap I met in the street one day. He’d brought his wife round to show her where he grew up; and told me that the driveway, and the one of the one across the road, used to be their cricket pitch. Though creaky in the knees, he was still limber enough to demonstrate how he used to bowl his leg breaks; which his brother would on occasion smash through the window of the undertakers, opposite. It’s funny how, since then, that phantom cricket pitch has stayed in my mind. Along with the ghosts of all the other things I’ve glimpsed that were around here once and now no longer are; except, I suppose, as here, when they manifest, unpredictably, again.


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