We spend our lives mourning our childhoods.
Our values and expectations are shaped throughout our younger years, sometimes subconsciously. Once we learn that, say, an ice cream dropped on the hot sand during a day at the beach won’t be replaced, the ice cream becomes a little part of us, a part we can’t get back. As adults we can buy another ice cream, but it’s not the same one. It’s just a band-aid over our initial carelessness, and $5 out of our retirement funds. We still feel the loss.
Every tantrum or outburst we have, every moment of joy, whenever the waterworks spring a leak…that’s a moment when the situation we’ve found adult selves in has touched a nerve from an earlier time. It’s a unique brand of pain we aren’t equipped to handle.
From the 1970s onwards, childhoods became increasingly materialistic. My own was peppered with trips to toy shops and Christmases spent unwrapping action figure after action figure. I never broke an arm climbing trees with Huck and Tom because I was inside on the PlayStation. I never knew that pain and the associated loss of innocence.
But when that PlayStation controller broke, you better believe I felt that.
The values that make the younger generation weep into adulthood are different to the ones who came before (you know, the ones who made it impossible to buy a house). When a brand that played a large part in that childhood dies, it’s a personal attack, even if we hadn’t supported or even thought about that brand for years.
At the (mostly) newly refurbished Westfield Miranda, there’s something new to mourn.
Imagine looking into those gentle brown eyes and telling that face it’s over – he’s insolvent. Imagine being the one to cause that perpetual smile to end. It’d be like pulling the moon from the night sky: the nocturnal world would hate you.
Toys R Us has gone, and there’s an entire generation full of rage at its passing. How could this happen? Don’t toy shops last forever? Where will we take our children when they come of age?
We were there at the beginning, when the American giant arrived on our shores and slew the usurper. When we were invited to meet Barbie, Sonic and Geoffrey, to come in and “have a ball”, to be seduced by wares previously unfathomable to our young eyes.
And we drank deeply.
Never mind that we hadn’t gone in there in years, that we peered inside occasionally and merely wondered why there were so many baby items. Never mind that when we wanted a new board game for game night, we hit up Amazon and their incredible range rather than hiking out to one of many inconvenient locations embedded in mouldy old shopping centres. Never mind that our own children asked for iPads and Xboxes over Barbies and Transformers, and we willingly obliged, even as Hurstville’s double-storey Toys R Us lost an entire floor to Aldi.
We took Geoffrey and his magic factory for granted, and this is the price we paid. We dropped the ice cream, and we’ve done our dash.
Rebel Sport remains – a glimpse into a past when big name retailers could team up and it meant something – but the toy story is over at Miranda. The threshold that saw so many delighted kids quivering with anticipation, birthday money firmly – but not too firmly – clutched in tiny digits, has been sealed up and replaced with an ad for a shop elsewhere in the centre.
Imagine the scene behind this wall. A big empty space that, once upon a time, someone saw so much promise in. “This place could make kids happy,” they thought. And it could, until it couldn’t. Today, that possibility has been restored.
Downstairs, just a bit away from the escalator that once elevated us to a place where we didn’t have to grow up, is this sign overlooked by Westfield’s image consultants.
The quotations around the R sometimes appear in official Toys R Us signage, and sometimes they don’t. Here they seem to be a disclaimer, as though whoever crafted the sign didn’t quite believe the claim behind the name: that “toys were them”.
It’s certainly true today.
It seemed like a match made in heaven: a Mickey D’s right outside upper George Street’s Metropolitan Hotel. A greasy fast food basin would have been – and for many years, was – the perfect catchment area for empty stomachs hoping to dilute the copious amounts of alcohol they were about to ingest over the course of an evening out.
So what went wrong?
As a name, the Metropolitan has stood on this spot since 1879. Before that, this part of old Sydney town wasn’t so metropolitan. Prior to 1834 this was a lumber yard: thirsty work, so that year it was released from its status as Crown land for development as a hotel, originally the Castle Tavern, and later as the preposterously named La Villa de Bordeaux.
Publican P. Wilson’s continental experiment didn’t bring the boys to the yard, and by 1867 the building, which included a dispensary, a tailors and a drapers shop, was empty. 1879’s drinkers were more amenable to the idea of a pub on this corner, and thus the Metropolitan was born.
Once the shawl of sophisticated metropolitana fell over the site in the middle of the Victorian era, it wasn’t easily lifted. As with so many Sydney pubs, a brewery took ownership – in this case, Tooth & Co. The excess real estate attached to the building was employed, in 1910, to transform the Metro into a new breed of 20th century super pub. Thus Tooth’s dispensed with the dispensary and tailors, a bottle shop was added to the ground floor, and the neighbouring terrace, built at the site’s inception in 1834, was incorporated into the metropolis of George and Bridge.
In the last century the hotel has changed owners a few times. In the 1930s it was the Bateman’s Metropolitan. In the 60s, it was part of Claude Fay’s hotel portfolio. Today, it’s back to the plain old Metropolitan. This lack of ownership qualifier perhaps distills the idea of a ‘Metropolitan hotel’ to its purest essence – it belongs to no one, to everyone.
Or perhaps we should stick to talking about the ground floor.
McDonald’s and a night on the plonk used to be synonymous, but over the years there’s been a move by imbibers away from processed junk and kebabs, and toward a traditional pub feed. Pubs have seized on the move, providing eateries and “classic” menus in newly renovated wings of what were once snooker rooms or smoking lounges.
Even the trusty kebab has been elbowed out of contention by the schnitty. Where did my country go?
So in a rare move, this McDonald’s beat a hasty retreat to less discerning pastures. You don’t often see the Golden Arches admitting defeat, let alone leaving up scads of damning evidence of their tenancy here.
Poor form too, the Eye Piece, which has opted only to invest in the ubiquitous trend of the pop-up store rather than a real shopfront. As Sydney rent prices continue to accelerate towards Uncle Scrooge-levels of ridiculous money, shop owners have fought back by negotiating shorter terms. This means there’s no need for a total shopfront fit out, which in this case has laid bare the failure of Ronald and associates.
Funny choice of location for an optometrist though, isn’t it? Specs downstairs, beer goggles upstairs.
It seems like a match made in heaven.
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.