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?
In East Hills, an unfinished unfinished thought drifts across the side of an otherwise unremarkable little building. If you wanted to nitpick (and if you don’t, why are you here), you could argue that today’s East Hills Take Away & Bakery doesn’t actually offer any videos, and the sort-of mural outside is nothing but elegantly inscribed false advertising.
You’d be right.
But ask yourself this: do you actually want a video? Because if you do, go across the road.
This shop, or Fred’s, as it’s known to the locals, is the video headquarters of East Hills. If you want 1988’s Black Eagle, 1989’s The Experts, or the double cassette Malcolm X from 1992, and you only want them for up to three nights, you come here.
I can’t help but ask. “So…does anyone actually still rent these videos?” I did it for you.
Fred doesn’t miss a beat.
“Mate, all the time! I had a few come in ‘ere this week even.” He gestures to the videos lining the walls. “They come in, they borrow them, and they bring ‘em back.”
But do they rewind them, Fred?
Fred is 79, and fresh out of hospital. I’d come by the week before and found a sign on the locked door: ‘Closed Tuesday, maybe Wednesday’. It was Thursday.
But now it’s Saturday, and here but for the grace of the video gods is Fred, ready to vend Mr. Bean Volume 1 to whoever hasn’t upgraded to DVD yet. Behind the counter is a menagerie of ancient video posters and promo items, and most startling of all, a dedicated rewinding machine. Be kind, eh?
“But they’re not as popular as the games,” Fred continues with a hint of pride. I think he might be referring to the arcade games in the room next door, standing like terracotta warriors amid piles of random junk, but no. He’s talking about the Sega games.
On the wall are dozens of games for Sega’s Master System console. For those of you unfamiliar, the Master System was released in 1987. Sega exited the home video game console business entirely in 2001. Fred could be the only one in the country still renting these games out, and he seems to know it. When I ask if the games are for sale, he snorts.
“Gotta be joking, mate.”
Uh, which one of us?
Inevitably, I ask about the shop across the road, hoping for a story of bitter rivalry between two video shops during the golden years of the format, something in the vein of Used Cars (available at Fred’s for $3 a night). Not for the first time in his life, Fred disappoints.
“That other shop used to be mine, I moved here about 25 years ago.”
Oh. So what had this been?
“It was a hardware shop, and next door was a newsagent. I got that not long after, and painted it up with me murals…”
He sure had. I’m not sure if decorating is the right word, but his tributes to the Sydney 2000 Olympics…stained the walls of the arcade next door. The piles of junk did their best to cover them, but the damage was done.
Why had he left the neat, compact comforts of the shop across the road?
“The video business just got too big,”
Stifling laughter, I nodded.
“What I don’t get,” he started. Oh, this ought to be good. “is why they left the sign up. Let me tell you, mate, I put the word out at the local school that I wanted a sign painted. A little girl offered to do it and I said righto, she done it, and after she goes, ‘I want three shillings,’.”
Hold on. Shillings? VHS became a viable home entertainment format in 1976, ten years after shillings got the heave-ho. Suddenly, Fred had become an unreliable narrator. Nothing could be trusted. Even my eyes could be deceiving me, I thought, as I eyed the can of creaming soda I’d bought. What had the expiry date been?
I left the shop, knowing there was nothing more to glean from old Fred. I probably couldn’t even get an article out of it. I squinted in the afternoon sun as my eyes adjusted from the dark of the shop, and that’s when I saw it. Just up there, on the pub side of Fred’s building. The remains of a painted sign.
It said ‘HARDWARE SHOP’.
Across the road, the undeniably handsome three shilling work of the little girl caught the sun. I’d been pondering the ellipses following the word. Had it been Fred’s direction, or the girl’s own flourish? Had she even known what a video was?
In the time of shillings, this word brought the promise of a high-tech future to the backwater East Hills, and Fred delivered it. And now, in that very future, he still does.
How common a sight is this? Even if we’re not living in the golden age of the take-away shop (and we really aren’t), you still can’t seem to swing a dead focaccia in Sydney’s suburbs without hitting one of these, or an ex-one of these.
For those readers too young (pfft, yeah right) to remember, let me take you back for a moment. In my day, you could go to these places called milk bars or take-aways, which were usually plastered in Coca-Cola advertising. Not Pepsi…never Pepsi.
They’d make hot food and keep it in these giant contraptions called bain maries, which made it impossible to tell how long it’d been there. Crucially, they were also trojan horses into the then-fledgeling world of ethnic food: Australians not open minded enough to actually go to a Greek restaurant might still have a souvlaki at their local take-away. Ingenious, really.
This particular take-away seems to have spent most of its early years as a residential property before taking the plunge into the deep-fry. The kind of fatty junk sold here probably filled the stomachs of the blue-collar workers who once populated the area, or the staff and patients of Callan Park Mental Hospital which is just across the road, but as times and tastes changed it was out with the milkshakes and schnitzels (mmm, together at last), and in with the coffee and rolls.
But let’s go back even earlier, shall we, to a time before deep fried food clogged Australia’s arteries…
You’d better believe Mrs. Cutting wasn’t serving up dim sims and Chiko rolls to her 50 guests. I wonder if Dubbo’s local papers still herald the homecoming of any travelling Dubbogan (Dubsider? Dubbocastrian?)
The celebrations didn’t last long, because by 1943 the Cuttings had cut loose, and the jocks were in.
As you can see, Mr. John Smith (dynamic name, no wonder he became Jock) lived right here in the mid-1940s while working as a labourer. SEE? I WASN’T MAKING ALL THAT UP ABOUT IT BEING BLUE COLLAR!
Ahem. But once Jock’s labours were over, business became a little…mixed. A dynasty that would last over six decades began here for a measly 1500 pounds. I wonder if the take-away was making 140 pounds a week?
As recently as last year, the newly minted Rozelle Coffee Lounge was still feeding the locals, but in a much harsher, more competitive environment. Go to Rozelle today and there are gourmet cafes on every corner, so the more meat-and-potatoes establishments face an uphill battle, and that’s probably why the Coffee Lounge isn’t around today.
As the suburb has become gentrified and all the blue collars have turned to ironic skivvies, there’s no longer any call for a place like this. The Coffee Lounge knew it, as it’s currently under construction, presumably transforming into something more suitable to today’s clientele.
I don’t know about you, but I’ll always find those Coca-Cola takeaways suitable. There’s something really…comforting about them. If you drive into a country town and things are looking unfamiliar and unsettling in a Deliverance kind of way, a place like this is all you need to soften the sound of the banjos.
When Cash Converters first appeared in Sydney in the early 90s, they were pushing themselves as the legitimate pawnbrokers. You could feel just as comfortable walking in to purchase a ghetto blaster as you could walking in to hock one. In fact, destigmatising the act of hocking was something Cash Converters actively tried to work towards. In the eyes of the Cash Converters you weren’t some junkie whose true intentions were the china white elephant in the room, you were a valued customer. Even the name Cash Converters subliminally worked to suggest ‘Hey, you’re not hocking anything. You’re converting your unwanted goods for cash, and we’re making it happen. Aren’t we great?’
By 1996 the honeymoon was over. The true junkies and dodgy dealers had managed to corrupt the brand, and once again reputable folks were ashamed to be seen there. In the last five years they’ve staged a comeback of sorts (Cash Converters, not reputable folks), and it seems to be working. In fact, there already is a Burwood Cash Converters, but it ain’t this one. This, a little further up the street, is their first aborted attempt at converting Burwood’s cash, and it’s telling that when they went back for a second try, they gave this place a wide berth.
The lack of care put in the first time around is evident – the Cash Converters sign is crudely stuck over yet another sign. It even sports the chain’s tagline of the early 90s, which gives me an excuse to post this ad. If I could put it in every post, I would.
Today, the shop is occupied by an Asian supermarket, a proud retailer of globally beloved jasmine rice Royal Umbrella. They’re also clearly very proud of the ‘Trusted Brand’ award they won in 2010, an honour I’m guessing has never been bestowed upon Cash Converters. By the way, if you’ve still got the Cash Converters jingle stuck in your head, head over to the Royal Umbrella site and get a load of theirs. And remember – the whole world loves.
Surrounded by a seemingly inexhaustible army of mobile phone shops and money transfer stations, the late Campsie Spice Supermarket exists now only to remind us that if you can’t make it as a milk bar selling Streets ice creams and Shelleys drinks, you definitely ain’t making it as a spice supermarket. In your laziness you’re sending mixed signals, dudes! You weren’t selling Shelleys drinks!
Maybe the building’s cursed to bring bad luck to all who dwell within it, such as the unfortunately named Edward Raper, who in 1934 attempted to rent the dwelling as a ‘good dwelling’ to potential dwellers for only three pounds. I can’t help but wonder if his ad got any replies….probably. They were more innocent times.
If we flash forward to 1949 we can see that this place was home to W. Wall, a real estate agent selling property in streets (Ceres Street Padstow) that no longer exist. Coincidence? CURSED, I TELL YOU.