Don’t sit down – no long or in-depth story this time. Just a gentle reminder of the sort of shape a past life can sometimes take.
For those who fled South Vietnam to escape the rule of the Vietnamese People’s Army, today’s Ho Chi Minh City will always be Saigon.
No, it’s not a name like Ceylon that’s entirely out of time, but it’s use here shows that for some people, letting go of their past…
…is like pulling teeth.
Right, where were we?
Back in the 80s, a bunch of pissed blokes ran some boats aground in Sydney Harbour, much to the consternation of the locals.
Hooning around the Tasman in a tub’s nothing new, but this particular incident was deemed momentous enough that the city named a suburb after it.
Ever been to Golden Grove?
If so, congratulations: you’re the oldest living human. A few years after the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, a suburb in the blossoming (or metastasising, depending on your point of view) city of Sydney was named for the Golden Grove.
Built in 1780 as the Russian Merchant, the ship’s name was changed five years before its departure for Botany Bay It was a prescient move – even back then, Russian collusion wasn’t something to make public. Known as “Noah’s Ark of Australia” (sorry, Rusty), the Golden Grove carried a bunch of animals to a wild, inhospitable place unprepared for the subsequent chaos of colonisation.
Despite the fleet’s lasting legacy being in evidence literally everywhere in the colony of New South Wales, someone thought a suburban tribute was a good idea. Thus, Golden Grove was born in the approximate location of today’s Darlington, at the uni end of Newtown.
It didn’t stick. Today, all that remains of the gilded thicket is the name of the street that once bordered the suburb…
…and a healing ministry centre on nearby Forbes Street. According to the centre, the name was chosen because the Golden Grove carried the first chaplain to New Holland. From a whisper to a scream, right?
I tried to get close for a taste of that healing (God knows I need some) but a stern sign suggested I take my troubles elsewhere. The view from the fence suggested a colour a lot less golden than I’d expected.
An infinitely more peculiar legacy of the Golden Grove has been written about before, but was too good not to share again. Score one for Noah’s Ark:
As for the ship itself, it shared the same fate as its namesake suburb – it vanished from the records just a few years after its moment in history’s spotlight. A Sydney Harbour ferry’s carried the name since 1986, but let’s face facts: ferries are no substitute for the real thing.
There’s a lot to say about a place like Con’s, pictured here in the midst of a small row of anonymous shops on a street you’ve never heard of, in a suburb cherished by few.
It’s not Con’s anymore – it hasn’t been for many years – but that’s the identity that stuck. Run by an old man and his two sons, the ‘General Store & Deli’ provided basic needs to a growing young suburb. Along the way, we’ll hear from those who knew him best: his loyal customers.
Where to start with a place like Con’s? Do we talk about the price gouging? Corner shops like this tend to jack prices up past the point of no return on investment, but Con, an early pioneer of the $4 price point for a bottle of Coke, turned it into an art.
Red frogs that jumped from 5c each to a whopping 20c within five years. $4 Cokes when the local high school had them for $1.50. Cool, refreshing Calippos priced out of reach on a hot summer’s day. Bread that got more expensive as afternoon turned to evening, when the desperate would stop in on their way home from work.
“He was always so grumpy and keen to get rid of me, buying my seven carob buds for seven cents.”
Or we could talk about the Con’s experience, the service that made the place a local legend.
“I went there almost every day after school, but apart from enabling dietary habits that would not serve me well as an adult nothing really happened there. Con Jr was always a bit of a dickhead, but maybe he just hated kids, which in hindsight is fair enough.”
Taunting schoolkids. Turning away sales of less than $1. Not turning on the Street Fighter machine when asked.
“It was the first place I ever saw the Sub-Zero head rip fatality in Mortal Kombat. Thanks Con.”
Never knowing if it would be Con, or Daddy Con, or Brother Con behind the counter. The loud TV in the corner blaring foreign soap operas at all hours of the day. “Funny” point of sale banter suggesting leaving the change from a $20 for a bottle of milk as a “tip”. Perhaps the joke was on him: there was never much leftover.
“My mum was always really pissed at his prices. Con’s mantra of justification was something like ‘it is what it is'”.
On the other hand, we could talk about how many a desperate family had milk on their cereal because of Con’s, how too many late night Sega marathons were fuelled by Con’s Cheezels and Pepsi. How a chocolate bar after school could brighten a kid’s day, all because Con and co decided to dive into the retail world right here.
“They were pretty generous with the Oddbodz and Tazos back in the day. I’d ride up and buy like two 50c packets of chips, and he’d give me four or five packs of Oddbodz. Good times. I mean, I know the cheaper chips and lollies were offset by the extreme cost of milk and bread, but you’d only buy that from there out of desperation. Yeah, good times.”
We could talk about the early days before Con’s arrival, when the shop was run by “Aussies”, as if Con’s citizenship was somehow invalid because he had an accent. About the strip’s salon wars, when disgruntled hairdressers at the neighbouring Con-owned salon jumped ship and started their own business on the end of the row, beyond the reach of property tycoon Con.
“Once, I had an extreme hunger and ordered a sausage roll from there. Yeah, hot food was had from there once. They sold sausage rolls in that weird deli section. Con took it, chucked it in the microwave and served it up a few minutes later. I remember wondering why hadn’t I done this sooner.”
We could talk about this…except we already have.
We could talk about the no-nonsense appearance of the shop. Many corner shops or mixed businesses are adorned with logos such as Streets Ice Cream or Coca-Cola, tacit admissions that this is an authorised dealer for those conglomerates.
Con, beholden to no one but the almighty dollar, had minimal accoutrements. He was a lone wolf.
Or we could talk about the later years, when everyone had moved away, yet Con remained the constant, unsold lolly teeth laughing in the afternoon light long after school had ended for good.
“I suppose he saw us all grow up, really.”
Or finally, the day when it wasn’t Con, or Daddy Con, or even Brother Con behind the counter, but an Asian couple. The day Con gave up.
That day, Gatorades were $6 a bottle. The new owner’s tribute to Con, I assume, but it just wasn’t the same without him.
Now even the new owners are old, and gone. So ultimately, all that’s really left to talk about is an empty building. Where to start?
Remember when Michael Jordan went from dominating basketball to embarrassing baseball? Today’s subject is a little bit like that, only without the Bugs Bunny team-up to make it palatable (I asked, he’s a busy rabbit). Still sports-related, mind you.
WHOA! Are you into top gear yet? Back in 1994, the clamorous Tony D’Allura was the managing director of Fleets, a sports gear warehouse. At 154 Parramatta Road, Ashfield, D’Allura broadcast this entreaty to those in the market for day-glo boogie boards and flippers…and woe to any piece of cardboard with a dollar value written on it that got in his way.
It was this arresting commercial that gave me pause, first to check my hearing, and second to find out what had happened to that location. I didn’t have high hopes – after all, how long can you last when you’re selling flippers at “unbelievable” prices?
But before we get to the ultimate fate of Fleets, let’s go back a bit further. Even back in its residential days, someone was trying to flog stuff at crazy prices:
Glorious tone and volume, eh? Now, who does that remind you of…
The site’s sportswear days date back to at least 1976, when it was home to Ski-Ace Pty Ltd, owners of the BLACK MAX trademark. I don’t know about you, but the idea of Tony D’Allura screaming about bargain marital aids during The Simpsons back in 1996 appeals, it really does.
In 1978, Ski-Ace became Fleets Sports World, specialising in winter gear, and by 1990, they were a known brand with ONE LOCATION ONLY. As we already know, by 1994 they’d expanded into surfing gear and general sports equipment, and two years later they expanded into Brookvale. As with our old mate Toyworld, country towns followed.
Here’s where things become preposterous…
Fleet Flyers was a small courier company founded in Sydney in 1921. 40 years later, it was bought out by Australian National Couriers, which is still active today.
In 2000, Fleets Sports World vacated the Ashfield location, and was replaced by Canova Interiors. Ok, I hear you say, who cares?
Well, Fleets Flyers began to use that same address, and apparently adopted the extra ‘s’ along the way. Neither the mostly defunct Fleets website or the still-active ANC site (which the Fleets site redirects to) mention Fleets Sports World in their history or about pages, nor do they mention any sporting history whatsoever.
So what happened? Did they move in simply because the name was already on the sign? Unless Tony D’Allura resurfaces to tell us the story via podcasts Cheez TV-style, we may never know.
What we do know is that neither Fleet, Fleets, ANC, or even Canova Interiors operate outta Ashfield anymore:
The old Fleets, along with Brescia Furniture and some other relics have been razed to make way for WestConnex. The sun has set on Parramatta Road’s commercial viability. No longer can you plan a day of shopping for soccer balls, leather lounges or ribs along this soon-to-be-habitrail, and frankly it boggles the mind that it was ever possible.
But should an ANC driver ever feel a chill as they pass this stretch of the motorway in years to come, well, now we’ll know why.
And don’t mourn for Fleets – against all odds they’re kicking on in regional NSW, where it’s appropriate to appear in your own ads. Have a look if you don’t believe me:
Dry your eyes.
Special shoutout to my homie Flemishdog for uploading these and many other old ads. Love your work, Mr Marshall.
It looks like any other drab line of shops on a dreary corner in Dullsville.
So what’s the reason for our focus on this windswept Belmore street corner on such an unseasonably brisk evening?
I thought you’d never ask.
The Corner Grill Cafe has failed. The grill is dormant, the shakes are neither shaken nor stirred, and the chips remain a mere gleam in a spud’s eye. Don’t believe the signs; they’re open zero days, and there’s no home to deliver.
This location has long served up junk food to the masses – just look at the ghost sign on the building’s south:
And in that earlier time, the corner shop backed onto some kind of mechanic. It’s now an IT consultant, but the evidence is there:
Despite that, it’s nothing special. Just another small business caught in the thresher of the conglomerates that absorb everything we rely on. The blood has dried, and the scene of the crime is now available on a twelve month lease.
What caught my eye, however, was this.
This is what elevates the Corner Grill Cafe – and indeed, the whole block of shops – to being worthy of a handful of words on the internet. Someone cared.
Whoever it was that founded the Corner Grill, that did their research, signed the lease, had the signs made, ordered the milkshake powder and on whose orders thousands of coffee beans were ground to death, that person believed in their idea, as wholly unoriginal as it was, and they gave a gift to an audience they thought they knew.
They believed that this corner of Belmore needed the Corner Grill Cafe, and only in the way they could provide it. They believed that it would fly, that the air would benefit from the smell of juicy, flame-grilled burgers instead of cigarette smoke and desperate living.
They believed that the arcade games that used to make the adjacent corner shop (and countless others like it) sing still had a place, however abstract, on Yangoora Street. They believed that the community had a place for their dream, and they commissioned this artwork to prove it.
That they were wrong doesn’t matter. They left their mark, and these days, that’s enough.