A Tale of Two Doll Hospitals – Bexley, NSW
Suspensions of disbelief get a thorough workout these days. Whether you can’t believe there are Superman movies that don’t star Christopher Reeve, or you refuse to believe it when NRL stars run afoul of the law, you’re likely having a tough time of it in this, the dawn of the information age.
For a long time, I refused to believe that one area, nay, one stretch of road could support not one but two doll hospitals. So when the Doll Repair Centre at 444 Stoney Creek Road, Kingsgrove ceased to exist a few months ago, that suspension vanished, the disbelief came crashing down, and here you are reading my attempt to process a lifetime of astonishment and uncertainty.
In simpler times, kids played with toys. ‘member toys? Action figures, Matchbox cars, those lame wooden ones that barely moved…and dolls. Back then, dolls were seen as a “girls toy”, and the levels of attachment the little girls of the past had for their dolls was in the minds of many a by-product of “maternal instincts”.
I speak from experience when I say this: when an action figure broke, it went in the bin. Too bad, so sad. “Boys toys” were expected to take damage through rough play. A broken doll, on the other hand – be it a loose seam, a torn dress, or a missing head – was a tragedy, and required immediate repair.
And so it was in 1913, when a Mr Harold Chapman of Campsie established Sydney’s first doll hospital. The demand was there, and carried the business through to the late 1930s, when Chapman’s son Harold Jr moved the Doll Hospital to Her Majesty’s Arcade in the city. If you had a shop in the city at this point in time, you’d made it.
Her Majesty’s Arcade had a problem, however – it occupied a most plum piece of real estate on Pitt Street, and in 1968 plans arose that sent all tenants packing. The Doll Hospital ended up here, near the corner of Stoney Creek and Forest roads in Bexley.
The arcade was demolished, and by 1981 Sydney’s favourite 309m-tall resident stood in Her Majesty’s wake.
But back to the Doll Hospital, as it stands today.
Unlike most hospitals, patients line the windows, exposing their medical issues to the world.
Sorry, but dolls are creepy. Maybe that’s why this is going up on Halloween. There’s something about those glassy eyes and pre-sculpted faces that rub me the wrong way. The public’s tastes have also skewed away from traditional dolls in recent years, and toward licenced merchandise instead.
There’s no better way to brag about your mad surgeon skills than by showing off no less than three fully intact Humpty Dumptys, the most frail of all toys.
Handbags and umbrellas need love too, so they’re also welcome here. They don’t repair signs, I’m guessing?
That’s a double no, then. Honestly, I was surprised to find it’s still in operation. Imagine my shock when I saw this sign:
That’s right – if your doll’s blue in the face and unresponsive at 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon, you’re shit out of luck.
Or are you?
Carmo’s got your back after hours, but I bet it ain’t cheap. Even with this safety net, don’t let your doll go for a big night in Newtown anytime soon.
The Doll Hospital wears its heritage proudly via its suit of signage armour. It’s still in the Chapman family: Harold Jr’s son Geoff runs the joint these days, and has a full team of dolly doctors on his staff. Though not everyone is a fan. Check out this “nit-picking whinger”:
Ignore the ominous green building and check out the sign on the western side of the doll hospital. It hides the identity of the building’s previous owner, but only just. If it ever comes down for an update (perhaps at the 180 years of service mark), we might get a look at that piece of blue and yellow history. But not today.
The building is old – “olde”, in fact – and in one place seems to literally be held together by a plank of wood. The signs boast that the Doll Hospital’s provided “Over 80 Years of Service”, but the sign above the awning says it’s “Over 100 years”. Get your story straight, guys.
The sign also makes the curious, almost defensive claim of being the “original” doll hospital. Is that to suggest there was at one time a pretender? An upstart that wished to usurp the Doll Hospital’s monopoly? A firebrand so ballsy that it would take up residence in the Chapmans’ own backyard?
The incredible answer is yes. This may be the “the Olde Doll Shoppe” of Sydney, and you should go and check it out. But imagine just for a moment, there was a doll shoppe that looked even olde-er…
Yep. This is where I’m gonna go when I need something repaired.
It’s hard to read as the sign has cracked and rusted from years exposed to the elements, but once, this was the other doll hosp- uh, I mean doll repair centre.
Until recently, that is. Now it’s anyone’s, so if you want to challenge the might of the Famous Original Olde Doll Hospital, here’s your chance. You can’t do any worse than the last one…
From what I could discover, rash daredevils Peter and Mary threw caution to the wind a few decades back and tried to democratise doll rehabilitation.
“We repair, we care” says the card, bold in its implication. It’s not hard to imagine a time when raw, violent rivalry spanned the gap between the two surgeries, and I believe that may have bubbled over in 1992:
They couldn’t even bear to follow on from each other in the dot points! That the Doll Hospital placed a full three spots above the Doll Repair Centre tells you everything you need to know about the hierarchy.
Ultimately, Peter and Mary couldn’t hack the cutthroat world of doll repairing. The state of this shopfront was a sorry sight in the last few years; a battered old pram stood outside, attracting the wrong kind of attention. It was far from the lush doll dioramas of the Doll Hospital.
A look inside gives nothing away. They had a cupboard.
The signage above suggests this corner belonged to someone in a time before the divine feud. I can’t make out what it says, so if you know (or it was your corner), get in touch.
Ultimately, I was left unsatisfied by my as-exhaustive-as-I-was-bothered research, so, fascinated by the mysterious Doll Repair Centre, I went deeper. I found an old website, long since defunct. But thanks to our friends at the Wayback Machine, I was able to jump back in time. I had no idea what lay in wait.
What I found left me scandalised. Check out the layout of the Doll Repair Centre’s website.
Maybe it’ll seem familiar to you.
And maybe you’ll recall that old saying about staring into the abyss for too long.
So…any web designers in the house?
Toyworld/Chuan’s Kitchen – Hurstville, NSW
When I turned four, I was taken for a walk up the street to the local toy shop and allowed to choose a present. The shop was a Toyworld – you remember, one of those big, purple deals with the giant purple bear wearing a cap in the modern fashion.
As a brand, Toyworld’s history dates back to 1976, when parent company Associated Retailers Limited realised that name wouldn’t look as good in rainbow colours on a toyshop marquee. Toyworld was launched as the retail group’s toy arm at a time when toys themselves were about to be ripped from their ancient comfort zones and thrust into a golden age of action figures by the blockbuster success of Star Wars. Riding this phenomenon from the late 70s through the mid 80s on brands such as Star Wars, Masters of the Universe and Transformers, Toyworld changed the face of toy retailers in Australasia, emblazoning that happy purple bear on hobby, sport and toy shops everywhere. Toyworld itself isn’t too sure about its own legacy, as the embarrassingly evident indecisiveness on its website demonstrates.
They didn’t entirely abandon their sporting goods heritage, either. Plenty of kids would have unwrapped a BMX (can you wrap a BMX? wouldn’t that look awkward as hell?) in front of jealous friends on birthdays or jealous siblings at Xmas, completely unaware that a purple bear had profited from their joy. For me, the sporting goods section of Toyworld was the absolute no-go zone. Who cared about some cricket pads when there were NINJA TURTLES over here? Or what about down there, in that bargain bucket out the front, for five bucks each?
On that glorious February day, I chose as my present the three Ghostbusters I was missing (I already had Venkman). My logic: I was turning four, and now I would have four of them. It worked – before long, the Ghostbusters were a team once more, zapping those crazy rubber ghosts until I saw an ad for Batman figures on TV and coloured Venkman black (see pic) in the hope he’d suffice. He didn’t.
And so my direct association with Alf Broome’s Toyworld ended, but I never forgot it. It was a hard place to forget purely on a visual level; from the purple frontage to the bear to the giant LEGO logo plastered on a mysterious door beside the shop, the whole place was designed to be an assault on a child’s senses, and oh what a glorious assault it was.
But what I didn’t know – couldn’t have known – at the time was the turmoil within. By 1988, Hurstville Toyworld was under siege, with struggles on local, national and even global fronts. Behind that happy purple face was a saga of bitterness and commercial impotence in the face a formidable threat to the entire toy industry.
As the article says, Broome’s toy shop had been around since 1971, first as the sports and toy shop, and then as Toyworld. Broome says that business boomed until 1986, when local opposition (likely the nearby Westfield, which had been constructed in 1978) made inroads into his business. The immediate effect of this encroachment was evident in the bargain bins outside – $5 Ghostbuster figures is a sign of the times.
Then, as Broome puts it, a “ripper recession” devastated any chance of recovery in 1990, with severe storm damage that same year not helping matters. Another strange point of impact upon sales mentioned by Broome was construction of a ‘new plaza’ by local council. Hmm…I’ll have to look into that one.
Broome banked it all on a healthy Christmas ’90 trading period that never came. The recently refurbished Westfield offered stiff competition, and globally, toys had begun their decline in popularity with the rise of video games. Even with the 1988 advent of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, nothing could be done to stop the Nintendo/Sega tag-team, which by 1992 had all but ended the age of dedicated toy shops, relegating Barbies and He-Men to toy departments, or bigger chains like World 4 Kids. Rather than face the likelihood bankruptcy, Alf Broome chose to walk away.
That was 1991.
Today, the building still stands, despite the near constant construction and refurbishment of the area. Of course, it’s been standing there since 1899, and has probably seen more failure than you or I could ever imagine. The first post-Toyworld occupant was Belmontes Pizza Shop, and man was I ever bitter. I couldn’t believe the toy shop had gone, and pledged never to frequent the usurpers.
Chuan’s Kitchen, the current successor to a line of failed take-aways that has populated the site since Belmonte hit the bricks, was not open today even if I had wanted to spend cash there. The take-away might have enraged me, but what outright scandalised me as a child was that the mysterious door once adorned with that bright, colourful LEGO insignia had been replaced by an adult shop – as far from a kids toy shop as was commercially possible. Originally L.B. Williams’ Adult Book Exchange, today it’s the far more generic Hurstville Adult Shop.
Toyworld limps on, mostly in country locations. I swear, every country town I’ve ever visited has had a Toyworld. Why? And while I’m asking unanswerable questions: what was behind the door back when it had the LEGO sign on it? What did Alf Broome do next? Just who was L.B. Williams? Perhaps we’ll never know. But Alf, if you’ve Googled yourself and have ended up here, I want you to know something. Back in 1991 you may have been “the man in the wrong place, at the wrong time, in the wrong business”, but in 1989, when I went in and was gifted those Ghostbusters, your shop was the world to me. And this is just my story – imagine the number of kids who would have left that purple shop happier than they’d ever been. Heck, reader, it might have been YOU. That kind of thing might not have been able to pay rent, staff wages or stock prices, but it does guarantee your immortality, Alf. You’re welcome.
It’s cool when things like this happen. As you’ve read above, I presented my case on the flimsiest bit of evidence, but Your Honour, I now present to the court…EXHIBIT B.
When the building behind it was demolished, it allowed for a prime view of the back of Chuan’s Kitchen. Why should this matter? Let’s take a closer look…
Oh, what’s that? I can’t quite make it out…CLOSER STILL!
Boom. There it is. Today. You could go and see it right now. At some point in the Toyworld saga, they thought to put up this logo on the reverse side of their building. Why?
Perhaps at the time the Liquor Legends building wasn’t there, providing uninterrupted views of the beaming purple signage. Maybe the signwriters were doing a two-for-one deal and the owner was going to get his money’s worth, damn dammit. Or maybe the truth is far more sinister… Either way, it took the demolition of the bottle shop (all in the name of progress) to unearth this treasure. Within each seed, there is the promise of a flower. And within each death, no matter how big or small, there is always a new life. A new beginning.
Mixed Business/Nothing – Surry Hills, NSW
This place, beside the Norfolk Hotel on Cleveland Street, Surry Hills, has been closed for a good long while. It’s hard to say exactly when it closed from what we can see. There’s a development proposal, so there might not be much time left for it, either. What amazes me is just how much you could get done at a place like this back when it was actually open and functioning. You could get your hair done while waiting for your clothes to be dry cleaned, AND buy a gift for your significant other and toys for the kids. And cigarettes. They all sold cigarettes back then.
World 4 Kids/Best & Less and The Reject Shop – Bankstown, NSW
Toys R Us was coming. The American toy giant had lingered on the horizon of the Australian retail scene since 1984, when it had first ventured overseas. Now, in 1993, Toys R Us had made its intentions to establish itself in Australia very clear. In a panic, and desperate to beat Toys R Us to the punch, Coles Myer set up their own chain of toy stores that attempted to outdo the American company in every conceivable way; a ‘category killer’. It wasn’t the first time Coles Myer had employed the tactic: in the same year, it had established Officeworks, basing it on the US stationery chain Office Depot. To give you an idea of just how contrived the whole concept was, here’s a 1993 ad preempting the World 4 Kids launch. If you can look past the kid’s stylish fashion, note the cynical overuse of the dinosaur to ride the success of the year’s biggest film.
I can still remember the hype surrounding World 4 Kids at the time of its launch. It was relentless. The Bankstown Square location was enormous, taking up an entire floor. To a kid, it was mind-blowing. They had video games available to try everywhere around the shop. They had aisles – not just a few shelves, like Grace Bros, but aisles – of action figures. They even had a ‘kids entry gate’ as an alternative to the regular entrance. Sure, it was just an archway over a little bridge, but that was for YOU! You weren’t meant to walk in the normal way like the grown-ups! This wasn’t just some toy department of a bigger shop. There was no threat of being dragged off to look at clothes or other boring stuff. It was ALL TOYS.
The launch of World 4 Kids didn’t stop Toys R Us from opening, and the closest store to the Bankstown World 4 Kids was at Hurstville. As expected, the Toys R Us store blew World 4 Kids away: it was two-storey, they had more of everything, and the name explicitly promised toys, rather than merely alluding to them in the case of World 4 Kids, which sounds like it could easily have been one of those lame play centres with the ball rooms.
1993 was about the start of the last big era for toys. By the end of the 90s, video games had eclipsed toys by a wide margin. Also by the end of the 90s, World 4 Kids was a world about to end. The company had bombed hard in the wake of Toys R Us, haemorrhaging millions of dollars each year it was open. By the end, it was losing $36m a year, and cost Coles Myer more than $200m during its short lifespan. World 4 Kids, supposed to be the successor to K-Mart’s dominance of the toy market prior to 1993, closed in 2002, and the brand name was absorbed back into K-Mart, which adopted it as the name of its toy department.
This particular World 4 Kids took over the floorspace of Venture, itself formerly Waltons Department Store (but more on that another time), so by failing miserably, it was only carrying on the strong tradition established by those two brands. Where the one store once took up the entire floor, a chemist, the Reject Shop and Best & Less have taken up residence. Immediately following World 4 Kids’ departure, a JB Hifi was set up in its place, but in a rare move for JB it was closed a few years later. Even Toys R Us is struggling these days, with the Hurstville location having long since been reduced to just one floor.
The only evidence that World 4 Kids, the place that meant the world to so many kids in 1993, was ever a part of Bankstown Square is the faint afterimage of its sign on the outside facade of the building, along the Appian Way. Yesterday’s great hope is now just a stain on the wall. It’s a stark reminder that no matter how personally a store may appeal to you, it’s always business. After all, that’s the way of the World.