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?
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.
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.
Once upon a time, on the corner of Henson Street and Chetwynd Road, Merrylands, there existed a corner shop.All the locals would journey to the shop whenever they were out of the Big Three: bread, milk, cigarettes. For those who couldn’t make the trip, perhaps those too elderly to easily leave their houses, the shop provided free delivery.In the summertime, on their way to or from the local pool, or maybe just in the midst of riding around the streets on their BMX bikes, kids would stop in for ice cream, or drinks of the icy cold variety. In the 80s specifically, their choice would have been that of the new generation.None of that “Good on ya, Mum” nonsense here – strictly Buttercup Bread. Today, the name seems to have disappeared, but it lives on through the ‘Mighty Soft’ brand for those of you interested.Those shelves, once fully stocked to provide a community with the essentials, are now empty. If you imagine it as a metaphor for the emptiness of the concept of community in the modern age, you’ll probably wind up feeling pretty bummed out, so don’t do it.
This shop may be confined to Merrylands, but the underlying themes apply to just about every has-been corner shop in any suburb. They’re relics from another era, and one that can never be again.
Even the most quiet and unassuming of streets or buildings could have been the site of scandal and intrigue at some point in the past. A little research goes a long way: a quick check of Trove revealed that a street I grew up on was the scene of an inter-war triple murder and several gruesome accidents! It’s the kind of thing that makes for great reading on a cold, rainy afternoon.
So if you live on Melton Street, Auburn, I hope it’s raining right now.
While I’m not going to bother getting into the nitty-gritty of 1950s meat price regulations, the space allotted by the newspaper to the above article should tell you all you need to know about just how important this apparent non-event was.
For this one day, butcher Neil Johnson had his moment in the sun, having been accused of overcharging for meat. In his defence, he claimed that his meat was primo quality, so why shouldn’t he overcharge? The justice system wasn’t convinced, slapping a fine on Johnson that, according to the article, could have forced him out of business. Something certainly did.
Now that you know the story, here’s where it happened. Pastel colours aside, Johnson’s butchery today is completely unassuming. It’s just another ex-corner shop no one gives a damn about. I’m not saying everyone should, but I never cease to find fascination in these little stories that make Sydney’s suburbia more than just a network of streets.
And that’s just what we can see from the outside. Would the interior still be recognisable as a butchery? Does it still carry the stench of Johnson’s failure? Given the current state of Sydney housing prices, they’re questions that for the majority of us will never be answered. Talk about overcharging…