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.
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.
“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.
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.
The worst part is that two years later, it’s still for lease. I haven’t had a haircut in two years.
JOHN: What do you think, darling?
ETHEL: I think I’d like to know a bit about the history of the place before we commit to anything. It looks quite old…
REAL ESTATE AGENT: That’s because it is, Mrs. Kelly. As you can see, it’s currently a lending library and a dry cleaner, but our records go back to 1895. At that time, this was the residence of a Mr. S. Spittle, furniture salesman. Spittle was a man known for his generosity, and he was likely here at home in bed on the night back in June of that year when he graciously allowed Mr. and Mrs. McKinelly use of Enterprise Hall, above his furniture warehouse, for a party.
Look, here’s the clipping from what must have been a very slow news day:
REAL ESTATE AGENT: Just three years later, Mr. Spittle had moved to another part of Newtown, making way for a Mr. J. Preston and his family. Under Preston, this shop became a newsagent…
REAL ESTATE AGENT: …which likely sold the very paper that, in 1901, contained the details of his granddaughter Rose Anna’s funeral train, which was headed straight for the Necropolis. Very sad. It’s believed she died in this house.
The records become a little hazy for a time after that.
By the 1920s, though, they’d gone from selling newsprint to, well, printing in their own style. If you wanted to have your photo taken in your best power outfit and then have your imperfections aerographed out, Dallimore’s was the place to go:
REAL ESTATE AGENT: Somehow, I don’t think rough-and-tumble Newtown was quite accepting of such an arty venture. Maybe one day…
Sure enough, the Kellys bought the shop, and only two years after that, Mrs. Kelly bought the farm…
…after which time John Kelly, formerly a milk bar proprietor, retired to Rockdale, and that’s where we lose the trail. It’s not until the mid 1980s that the chain of tenancy gets hot again, and what hotter place for it to do so than the Dew Drop Inn…
Hairdressers in Newtown are a dime a dozen, especially with slick, one-word names like Glitterbox. But if we look upwards, we see that this was once a very un-slick, many-worded Asian restaurant: the Dew Drop Inn.
It’s a name that’s usually reserved for seedy joints in 30s gangster movies. In fact the last place I’d ever expect to be associated with that name would be an Asian restaurant, especially – as the sign boasts – a gourmet one.
Unfortunately for this article’s integrity, the Dew Drop Inn seems to have dew dropped off the face of the planet, with nary a mention on the internet. All we can go on are the facts: one: it’s pre-1994 because it’s a seven digit phone number and two: it’s an Asian restaurant in Newtown without either an Asian name or a terrible pun.
And yet, for all this emptiness and lack of information, I’m intrigued. I need to know more. Did yew ever drop inn? Fess up in the comments.
Let’s dig deeper. According to this fascinating snapshot of an article from 1994, our location then became the State of Grace cafe.
Sheena Dunn, just back from New Orleans to open the State of Grace cafe, believes in the funky eclectism of the southern end. “It’s a strong neighbourhood, especially of artists and musicians,” she says. “This part of town really feels like what’s happening.” The cafe, open just one week, serves a silky Thai pumpkin soup, Spanish tortilla and home-made lemonade and coffee to the sound of S. E. Rogie and Miles Davis.
Gee, it’s truly a shame that we’ll never again be able to enjoy the eclectic funk of a Newtown cafe that serves tortillas and plays jazz music. Of note is that the article mentions the State of Grace had only been open a week; the article later provides the cafe’s phone number, which is without a 9. From this, we could assume that the shop’s preceding tenant was…the Dew Drop Inn.
But there’s one thing that’s bothering me. Given the suburb’s penchant for all things vintage and retro, could it be possible that someone just bought that sign and mounted it there as an artistic statement? Are we being tricked? Only in Newtown…
Careful and considered research tells us that as far back as 1914, Sid Steele (yes, the Sid Steele) was providing King Street’s St Peters end with all the tobacco they desired. Had Sid kept his ego in check, we of the future may never have known of his long-ago dominance of the industry, but the forward-thinking Steele made sure his name would be as resilient as his namesake by emblazoning it across the top of this otherwise generic ’14 model. Future tenants were not so precious…
For example, Martin chose to leave his mark on his customers rather than the buildi- oh sorry, studio. Note that Martin doesn’t have the air conditioner that later tenants have. What’s with that, Martin?
In the new millennium, it’s as naff to include your name in your business name as it is to use the term ‘naff’. The proprietors of CHINESE ANTIQUE FURNITURE may not have had staying power, but they didn’t need it; hoping to capitalise on the zeitgeist of the Chinese Antique Furniture boom of 2007-2010.
These days, the folks behind Little Big Tween are striking the tween craze while the iron is hot, admirably attempting provide the childrens clothing market with ‘age appropriate’ designs. If it means seeing one less kid in an ‘I’m with the MILF’ shirt, more power to ’em.
If you allow your mind to drift back to the heyday of American-style consumerism this country indulged in between 1970 and 1999, you’ll no doubt remember Tandy Electronics. Born in 1973 as a local subsidiary of an American parent company of the same name, Tandy’s cutting edge product line and futuristic promise found a niche market that didn’t even know it was there. By 1980, Tandy had expanded past its modest Rydalmere headquarters, sprouting up in shopping plazas, arcades and strip malls like this one all around the country.
As a 90s kid, there were no words fit to print with which to express the disappointment of entering a Tandy and expecting video games. It was an electronics shop, wasn’t it? I didn’t want to have to build my own IBM compatible (or CB radio, more likely given Tandy’s field of expertise). They were still kid-friendlier than Radio Shack, but hell, even Dick Smith at least had a SNES game or two.
The paradigm shifted with the arrival of Electronics Boutique in 1997 – an ‘electronics’ shop without the transistors, bulbs and sockets we found so off-putting. At the same time, the limits of home-made technology were becoming apparent as the advances of the tech world left Tandy choking on its dust. In 2001, Woolworths added Tandy to its family, which by then also included Dick Smith.
Sadly for Tandy, it was far too niche to receive a generic relaunching as a consumer electronics and electrical giant as did Dick Smith. By 2009, the Tandy brand was put out to pasture, suddenly the perfect example of an “Oh, where’s that shop gone? I’m sure it was over in this corner…oh well.” moment. The final nail in the coffin was the closure of the tandy.com.au website (it redirects to the Dick Smith site). It’s almost biblical: the final betrayal for Tandy came from the realm of technology itself.
All that remains today are examples like the above. Hair of Istanblue can probably thank Tandy for its awesome homemade security system, or its radio that competes with the permanent-part time apprentice hairdresser for the coveted title of ‘loudest in the room’ on any given business day…but it’s likely these technological legacies go unnoticed.
Not so the old sign outside, the 80s ‘hi tech’ font of which catches the eye much better than the weirdly-incomplete Istanblue awning. But beware its siren call, tech-heads – you won’t find DIY lie detector kits and oscilloscopes here. C’mon, even the defunct Tandy website had to have been better than Hair of Istanblue’s spartan effort.
Also worth mentioning is the integral part Tandy Electronics played in the early 90s Australian childrens TV series Finders Keepers.
In the show, based on Emily Rodda’s books, a Tandy outlet in Prospect (a northern suburb of Adelaide) acts as a gateway to another world, one separated from ours by a ‘time barrier’. As the Gladesville Tandy has shown us, it wouldn’t be the last time Tandy would act as a time warp.
Whereas some new owners of an address are quick to disguise the place’s former life, some embrace it. Exhibit A: the Newsagency Gallery at Petersham.
Occupying the former Sellick’s Newsagency on Stanmore Road, the Newsagency Gallery allows artists to rent the space for weeks at a time to display their work. They’ve left the outside almost entirely untouched…
…which is fine, but by using the shell of one to attract people to their gallery it’s almost making the statement ‘newsagents are dead, come and see what’s inside now’. But newsagents aren’t dead, despite the best efforts by Fairfax and News Ltd to make newspapers unreadable. Anyone seeing this familiar shopfront is likely to wander in hoping to grab a Daily Mirror and a couple of Scratchies. Interesting tidbit: in 1947 this shop was a hairdresser. Strange but true.