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Angelo’s for Hair/For Lease – Belfield, NSW

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He came to this country from Europe, in an era that was – in many ways – of greater acceptance than the age we live in today. Barely able to speak the “native” tongue, and still scarred by the horrors of war, he attempted, to the best of his ability, to integrate into the society he found here.

Seriously, imagine the effort: the journey to get to this faraway place is in itself a hellish struggle. And then to arrive, to have to gather your bearings, to learn the language, to assess the social order where almost nobody is like you, and to gauge your place in it.

You don’t know anyone. You have nothing. Nobody is like you, and nobody cares about you.

And after all that, to actually make the effort to insert yourself into that world. To provide for it! With today’s luxuries and privileges, and the world having become a global village, it’s almost impossible to understand that experience.

But he knows.

We’re not talking about an intolerant culture, as we have today. Australia in the post-war era was arrogant, dominant. White Australia, victors of the war in the Pacific, liberator of ‘subordinate’ races found in the occupied island nations.

Today, racial and religious intolerance comes from a place of fear, fear for “our way of life”, fear of the unknown, and a deep-seated, shameful understanding that these ideals are too flimsy to be defended.

But back then, it was an arrogant patronising of these European cultures who had already been brutalised by intolerance beyond understanding. We’ll tolerate your spaghetti and fried rice, fellas.

A people person, he started his career as a hairdresser in the city. Armed with youth, energy, passion, a thirst for knowledge and a hunger for success, he began to network as he plied his trade. The ageing, well-to-do doyennes of Sydney’s east, left alone by their business-minded husbands all day, longed for an outlet for their thoughts, their stories, their plans and their dreams. They found it in him.

And who could blame them? A good-looking, upwardly mobile young man eager to listen while he cuts your hair (all the while learning the intricacies of his new language) would be the perfect ear.

“They were my ladies,” he’d tell me decades later. When I pressed for more, his brow darkened like storm clouds and he shook his head. “Sorry mate, they’re still mine.”

As now, networking paid off. Trust leads to loyalty, and when the young man was ready to move beyond the confines of the department store salon and get his own place, his ladies came with him.

Even though it was out in the wasteland of the south-west, in a tiny suburb few had heard of.

In the mid 1960s, Belfield was still relatively young. We’ve been there before, so there’s no need to go too deeply into the backstory. Catch up first, and then cast our man into the backdrop.

Although it’s the inner-west now, it was truly the outskirts of civilisation for many at the time. Many poor European migrants found themselves in the middle of growing suburbs like Belfield, and often during the worst growing pains. But land was cheap, space was plentiful, and tolerance could be found if you looked past the stares.

He told me the shop had been a deli before he bought it. He’d saved all his income from the city salon, lived hard for years but never let go of the dream to own his own business. The master of his own destiny. We’re content these days to end up wherever life tosses us. Control is too much effort, and believing in fate and destiny means it’s easier to explain away fortune both good and bad. His was a fighter’s generation, and he fought for everything he had. He’d been fighting from the day the Nazis shot his father dead.

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His salon fit right into a suburb that had multiculturalised right under the white noses of the residents. An Italian laundry here, a Chinese restaurant (that serves Australian cuisine as well, natch) there, and a Greek hair salon right in the middle.

A friendly, ebullient character, everybody came to know him. The women loved him, the young men respected him, and the old ones still gave him sideways glances. He didn’t care – he’d outlive them.

“I still had my ladies,” he’d recall fifty years later. Some of his city customers had crossed the ditch, but he’d found an all-new community waiting to unload on him. He’d become family as he’d get to know the women, their children, and their children.

I came to this little shop for 25 years to get my hair cut. Always the same style: the Jon Arbuckle. In that time, I went from sitting in the baby chair and chucking a tantrum whenever it was time for a trim, to coming on my own, mainly for the conversation. As the years went on, he revealed more about himself and his life. It fascinated me.

“The hardest part,” he told me the last time I saw him “was that as the years passed, my ladies would…”

He paused. It was difficult.

“They’d stop coming in.”

Very true. Belfield is a very different suburb to what it was even ten years ago, let alone 30. Let alone 50. My grandmother was one of his women, so familiar that it seemed like they’d always be around.

But now she’s gone, and so is he.

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“This is it,” he’d said. What? How? Why would you sell?

“I sold years ago,” he confessed. He’d been renting ever since.

I was stunned. Was I destined to never get a haircut again? “You can come to my house if you still want me to cut your hair,” he’d offered, but the look in his eyes suggested we both knew it would never happen. It was a kind gesture, but not the kind you actually take up. No need to be a servant in your own house.

What would he do now? He’d been scaling back the business for a long time. Once, the workload had been heavy enough that he’d hired an assistant, but Toni had long since gone. He’d said he didn’t take new customers anymore, either. It was too hard, pointless to get attached. It was his great strength and his ultimate weakness, that attachment.

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So many Saturday mornings I’d spent in that chair, hair down to my shoulders, waiting for my turn. While I waited, he’d chat to me, or Mrs. Braithwaite, or Brett (who’d done time once and it had broken his heart). In all my years of going there I never saw the same “regular” in there twice, such was the expanse of his network.

On that final Saturday, we chatted out the back while he had a smoke. As a kid I’d always wondered about that back area. Turns out it was plastered with pictures of his own kids and grandkids, old salon paraphernalia, photos from his many overseas trips, and a radio constantly blasting ABC 702.

I’d thanked him for the last haircut he’d ever give me, and told him to keep the change. We shook hands, then embraced.

In my youth, I shed many tears in this place in vain attempts to avoid haircuts. As an adult, I shed one more.

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The worst part is that two years later, it’s still for lease. I haven’t had a haircut in two years.

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Video Ezy/Your Loan Mortgage Brokers – Narwee, NSW

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I’ve written before about the legend of Video Ezy, and much has been written since about its downfall. Gather ’round, kids, and I’ll tell you a tale.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the days of the video shop are long over, with so many titans of the industry falling in recent times.

As recently as 1996, today’s home entertainment climate seemed unthinkable – an era in which an unlimited well of entertainment options is available in one’s own home. Sure, occasionally you’ll spy a lone DVD kiosk, now the pillar of the industry (an industry…), standing unloved in a shopping centre somewhere, but I’m willing to bet very few of you have ever used one.

So neglected by society is the concept of renting entertainment that few, if any, memorial sites exist today for what was once such an everyday part of life. That libraries survived the format war – and continue to thrive today – speaks volumes about how far from grace the video shop has fallen.

But here, in this dark, menacing alleyway in Narwee, the legacy lives on.

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Look up and you’ll see a typical example of the de-ezyfication process. Even before the graffiti artists got to it, a more professional job had been done on the “Ezy” part, presumably as some off-brand video shop took up Video Ezy’s old space in those dark later years.

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Around the front, you’d never know any of that. Four separate, entirely uninteresting businesses now occupy the huge floorspace you know Video Ezy would have filled effortlessly. If there’s one thing vendors of unwieldy tape-to-tape spools contained in cumbersome plastic cases did well, it’s take up real estate.

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On the west side, our quarry is left relatively untouched, and we can see that the building once housed a supermarket as well.

Just for a moment, take yourself back to one of those Friday nights, when someone couldn’t be bothered cooking and there was nothing on TV. You’d head down to the video shop, where part of the fun were the hours it took just to decide on one title (and with the prices as they were, who could blame you?). You’d grab some popcorn because you’ve been conditioned as a corny traditionalist. You’d hit up the supermarket for a bucket of exotic ice cream (which for some meant a Viennetta). And then you’d head home via the nearest fast food joint and ring in the weekend with the biggest Hollywood stars of the day.

That’s right, you didn’t ask for much out of life.

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On the back wall, however, an urban Rembrandt tells another story…

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..one of community, harmony, and happy weekends full of leftover Viennetta, when you got it the first time or got it free.

Stan’s Burgers/Dolan’s Burgers/Kayems’ Cafe Takeaway – Beverly Hills, NSW

kayem pls

kayem pls

In many ways, the Beverly Hills of the southern hemisphere has absolutely nothing in common with the sun-soaked haven of Hollywood decadence up north, but I’d argue this – it’s even tougher to make it here than it is in that notoriously tough town.

Case in point: this small takeaway shop on yet another strip of pointless shops is rarely open, a unique approach to customer service anywhere but Beverly Hills. Why? Do people not need to eat? Why can’t this place just be open on a hot afternoon when someone might want to take a drink away and refresh themselves? What was it about the concept of a cafe/takeaway that Stan, Kayem, and even the infinitely more aesthetically pleasing Dolan all failed to understand? Somewhere, some landlord is laughing as they review their fourth tenancy application in as many years.

Past/Lives Flashback #4: Videomania – Rosebery, NSW

Original article: The Marina Picture Palace/Videomania/For Lease – Rosebery, NSW

The Marina, 1941. Image courtesy City of Botany Bay Local History Image Archive.

The Marina, 1941. Image courtesy City of Botany Bay Local History Image Archive.

Sometimes revisiting a place can reveal secrets you missed the first time. Case in point, the rotting behemoth on the side of Gardeners Road formerly known as Videomania. In its glory days this was the grand Marina picture palace, which operated until 1984 – a time when video killed the theatre star.

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I tried to get the same angle as above, I really did.

Another place for which time seems to stand still, Videomania remains relatively unchanged since last year. Sure, there are some new posters up along its face and there’s a new cupcake shop in the old bank next door, but the building itself is no different.

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We can only speculate as to how long those promo guys were waiting, longing to plaster the front of the place with their posters. I suppose the temptation became too much at some point, much to Jack Dee’s benefit.

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Even Leonardo is still there, ever vigilant. And he’d want to be, given the former theatre’s seedy surroundings…

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Out the back, I encounter some inspiring graffiti and little else. The place may still be for lease, but they certainly haven’t expended any effort making it presentable.

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I’m guessing that vacuum doesn’t work.

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Just when I was thinking to myself that there was nothing left to discover here, I found it. It’s something that was probably there last time, but I just happened to miss in the excitement of seeing a Ninja Turtle in the last place you’d expect to see one. See? The gluey remnants still attached to the side appear to vaguely form the word ‘Roxy’, another name this theatre went by at some point in its illustrious life. But that was just the primer. Have a look at this:

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Can you see it? Look really closely, and maybe try squinting. Still no good? Okay, let’s get a bit closer…

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How about now? The ‘R’ or maybe the ‘N’ should hit you first, and then from there it’s easy. Yes, amazingly, the awning’s decorative ‘MARINA’ lettering has somehow survived, allowing us an even deeper glimpse into the past than it was thought possible. Now all we need to do is arrange a screening of ‘Puddin’ Head’ inside. Maybe we should get in touch with the owners?

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We’re in the home stretch now, only three to go. Here’s a clue for the next entry: it’s another theatre.

ROCKIN’ UPDATE: The development-minded Vlattas family, owners of the Cleveland Street Theatre and the Newtown Hub, are currently renovating the Marina with the aim of turning it into a live music venue. My suggestion: keep Leonardo as your bouncer. Thanks, reader Rozie!

Past/Lives Flashback #7: Rick Damelian – Leichhardt, NSW

Original article: Rick Damelian/For Sale – Leichhardt, NSW

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Over the last year, you’re likely (I would hope) to have enjoyed a healthy bank balance, a good credit rating, a roof over your head. Simple stuff that the people of Sydney take for granted. Rick Damelian on the other hand…

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When we last left the epic tragedy that is the Rick Damelian saga, things weren’t looking too good for both Rick and his former dealerships. Despite their desirable location along Parramatta Road at Leichhardt, the caryards, weren’t attracting any offers, and Rick himself was staring down the barrel of a pretty severe bankruptcy.

But hold on. Look there, in the window…is that what I think it is? Let’s take a closer look.

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Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. In November 2012, these showrooms finally sold, and since then have returned to doing what they did so well at the peak of Rick’s success – selling cars.

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Even on the roof, Rick’s private helipad has been obscured by a legion of cars. The staff might want to check to make sure Rick isn’t living in one of them.

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Remember Ric’s Cafe, the on-site licenced restaurant that was the jewel in the crown of Rick’s decadence? It’s since been replaced by even more cars! It’s funny, Rick might not be in the situation he’s in today if he’d just thought to sell a few more cars instead of food and helicopter rides. Live and learn, I guess.

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Further down the road, a modestly priced used car dealership has set up shop on Rick’s old turf. So toxic was the land, so tarnished was the site’s reputation as a car seller that the signs feel the need to be as explicit as possible: “WE BUY CARS! WE SELL CARS!”. It’s a trick Rick didn’t seem to be able to employ in his last years: speaking the language of the customer. Having cars onsite helps too, I’d imagine.

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Rick’s old bedfellow, Honda, has returned as well. Formerly the core of Rick’s sales strategy, Honda left Rick holding the bag when the Japanese tsunami decimated their inventory, and some speculate that this marked the beginning of the end of the Damelian empire.

Yet here they are.

Fancy that: it’s easier to come back from the ravages of a tsunami than it is to survive Rick’s management.

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One thing Honda has held onto are Rick’s ‘Dealer of the Year’ awards. I can see what Honda’s trying to do…but Honda – you issued these awards. It’d be like me giving myself the ‘Blog called Past/Lives of the Year’ award.

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Over the road, Morris has set up shop at the old Rick Damelian Prestige lot. A few examples of Rick’s flamboyance remain: the floodlights, the pointless sign on the far left, the Hollywood-style palm trees. But the cold, impersonal MG style sits heavily at odds with these elements, further highlighting their uselessness.IMG_0010But fortune hasn’t been so kind to the man himself. As Rick Damelian and his wife sit together in their $3.3m McMahons Point townhouses, arguing over whose turn it is to heat up the beans tonight, the banks and other creditors hover over him like a hawk. Should he decide to sell his two townhouses – thereby leaving himself, his wife and his mother homeless – he’s so in debt that he’s likely to receive nothing. It’s reported that Rick has just $73 left in his bank account, and can’t even afford to buy a car. You really have to feel for his wife at a time like this…with no car, she may never get off her Ls.

After nearly 40 years in car sales, Rick’s biggest accomplishment was establishing his own name. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – take Dick Smith for instance – but it meant that Rick’s triumphs and tragedies didn’t stick to Honda, or Fiat or whatever brand of car he was flogging at the time, they stuck to him.

$200m-a-year sales? “Damelian’s business savvy creates sales juggernaut.”

Your new car sucks? “I wouldn’t buy from Rick Damelian again.”

While it’s true that the financial crisis hit everyone hard, Rick’s lavish showrooms didn’t help him weather the storm. And since he put himself forward so often, it was his name that thousands daily saw stagnating as they passed his high-visibility caryards at the top of Taverner’s Hill.

No matter what should happen in the future, the name Rick Damelian will forever be tied to car sales, and there are plenty of dealers who would kill for that kind of association. At least in his downfall, Rick has provided a cautionary tale for the next generation hungry to make an impact as the world’s financial situation improves.IMG_0019Fitting then, that it appears it’s harder to expunge Rick’s name from his old dealerships than it is from bankruptcy court.