The Corner Shop

Roland Barthes said that looking at old photographs was like being ‘chafed by reality’. Like photographs of the dead, these places are abrasive to the myth of progress. They are not supposed to be there, but they resist.

Jennifer Mills

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Sam Hood
Depression “bread wars”, corner store on Bourke & Fitzroy Streets, Surry Hills, Sydney, 21 August 1934
From the collections of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

As a young wastrel in the mid 1990s I was a regular at the Hopetoun Hotel on the corner of Bourke and Fitzroy Streets in Surry Hills. They had some of the best live music in Sydney (and some of the worst) and more importantly, they didn’t check ID.

At that time yuppies were moving in to the inner city in droves, but they soon realised that the drawcards of bohemian culture inconvenienced them. Nightlife is loud. Pubs were shutting down in the frenzy of noise complaints. As publicans’ rent rose, the soothing reverberation of guitar feedback was replaced by the insane parasitic pinging of the poker machine (an honest Sydney icon). But the tiny Hoey stayed true, dedicating its space to new bands and providing the authentic live music experience, complete with overcrowding, spilled beer, acoustic atrocities and occasional genius.

Eventually you would need something – cigarette papers, sugar, or a gulp of oxygen. Diagonally across from the Hoey was a corner shop. It had a sky-blue wall with vines painted all over it, and it was open late in the years before convenience. The corner shop offered more than convenience – it sold the unpredictable and absurd.

Jellybeans? Fishing line? Porno mags from 1982? You got it. You even got jellybeans threaded onto fishing line. No name hung over the door, but the shop itself was full of hand-written signs in oddly phrased English which had a mystical meaning at 2am. It was dusty. The lightbulbs were so dusty they glowed like candles. The whole place was as shadowy and crowded as the subtropical rainforest that still leans on the edges of Sydney like a tired publican patiently waiting for everyone to leave. In the background, a cassette tape was usually playing. It was a loop of the old bloke who ran the place singing “Thank you very much” to his own invented tune, incorporating the traditional music of Cyprus with a weird drone. And yes, for two dollars you could buy a copy of the tape.

The proprieter, Andreas Hadjisavvas, was a man advanced in years and pretty much deaf. After migrating to Australia from a conflict-ravaged Cyprus in the 1970s he had taught himself English, set up shop, and promptly ignored the reserved social customs of his adopted nation. The shop had accumulated ten or twenty years’ worth of his whimsy. It was an outbreak of poetic nonsense amid the ordered universe of Surry Hills. I loved it.

Andreas had the mad grin of the true artist and was not a very good capitalist. He would often charge ten cents for a can of soft drink, give away a chocolate bar with the cigarette papers, or wave you out of the shop without accepting your money just because he liked your smile. And you had to smile. Every interaction came with a deadpan joke of the “that is two-hundred-dollars, I mean two-hundred-cents” variety. Casual customers often emerged flummoxed from the shop with the wrong purchase in hand. I have no idea how he paid his rent.

Andreas had to come out from behind the counter to see you because every available surface was covered in his humourous notes and instructions. His English retained all the eccentricities of the self-taught immigrant. But he wasn’t just a corner shop owner. He was a performance artist who made surreal videotapes and sang his occasionally alarming songs at festivals organised by avante-garde violinist-composer Jon Rose. I was delighted to discover that the Thankyou Very Much song is archived here:

Browsing Flickr one day, I come across this picture of the same corner shop, sixty years earlier. A woman with strong ankles and an expression of exhausted defiance stands in the doorway. The photo was taken by Sydney’s pioneer photojournalist Sam Hood in 1934 for the Labour Daily (an issue of the newspaper is hanging on the front of the shop) and uploaded to Flickr Commons by the State Library of NSW. In the newspaper, it was identified as a different shop on Riley Street – perhaps to protect the woman in the doorway from having her windows broken by her starving neighbours. Bread prices rose astronomically during the 1930s, in part because of high transport and fuel costs, in part because shopkeepers were desperate or ruthless or both.

Long before the bohemians, Surry Hills was a slum of infamous wretchedness. Typhoid, high child mortality, overcrowding and violence were rife. There’s a myth in Australia that the Depression wasn’t too bad here, that by about 1933 it was effectively over. If you look at the economic statistics, you might get that impression. But if you look at images from the period and read oral histories (like Lowenstein’s seminal Weevils in the Flour), it’s clear that a severely impoverished underclass remained in Australia until World War Two came along and men dropped their swags and picked up rifles.

I was a young punk at the start of the (shudder) Howard Years. A long period of economic growth coincided with a neoliberalist narrative of unending economic advancement. Everything was growing. If I felt left out of this happy story, I wasn’t alone. Many were suffering from inflated rents, cuts to social services, the rising cost of living. We were dumpstering and squatting our way through, working two or three shitty jobs to pay for uni, getting cut off the dole every other month and trying to find space to write and make art in between. Life was a righteous battle, but eventually Sydney won. I spent too much time surviving. I had to move away if I wanted to focus on writing.

Researching Depression-era stories for The Diamond Anchor, I was moved by the narratives of tenacity, survival and rebellion that emerged from the 1930s. Where are those narratives now? If we look at Australia’s economic statistics, we’re doing all right in 2009. If we listen to anecdotes, look at the images, we get a different story. Unemployment might be stable, but there are full-time workers living on the streets. The artificial inflation of housing prices which eventually pushed me out of Sydney continues relentlessly. During the 2000 Olympics, while our squats were getting evicted and streets cleared of unsightly homeless people, Andreas plastered his shop with hilarious and often incomprehensible satire. I wonder what he would make of today’s city.

There are few shops like this left in inner Sydney. They stand like remnant old growth among the new plantations of bland townhouses, hairdressers and designer chairs. Glimpsing one of these shops from a bus window, I get the same startled feeling I get from old photographs. Roland Barthes said that looking at old photographs was like being ‘chafed by reality’. Like photographs of the dead, these places are abrasive to the myth of progress. They are not supposed to be there, but they resist.

The corner shop is still there, with the same worn front step, but Andreas has moved on. I don’t know if he’s still alive. His shop is a brightly-lit, well-ordered convenience store now, an identical clone of which adorns every inner city street. I pass it sometimes, but I don’t go inside much. The predictability is too heartbreaking.

Somewhere under that new white signage there’s an old blue wall with whimsical vines painted all over it. And under that, if an archaeologist looked, they’d find handpainted ads for Orange Delite, Mother’s Choice flour and carbolic soap. Maybe the erasure of past edifices is an inevitable result of Sydney’s development. But all too often it feels like cultural cleansing, like someone’s erasing the history of a particular social class. Poetic outposts are a funny thing, though. Every time one of them gets shut down, three more spring up somewhere in the world.

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