John Clare Writings

Song Of The Shops

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Many who are irreligious, pacific, and weak in fealty to the throne love churches, cathedrals, citadels and palaces. They are part of what draws us, late at night, to the Tour de France. Their age old stone is caressed by the helicopter camera in spiral digressions from the race, doing no harm to Tourisme en France. Commentator Paul Sherwen gives us some history. From high places they watch the riders struggling upward and on the lowlands a humble church will punctuate a village through which the cyclists fly. There is tranquility within, and excellent acoustics for liturgical music, but above all, this is architecture created for purposes beyond commerce and the need for a dwelling place. We feel it will always be there.

We are not so confident about the structures of direct commerce: the places where we shop. They too stand beyond domesticity, work and ordinariness, yet they are also part of everyday life. When I say beyond work I mean unlike the work that is done in factories, offices and fields. To draw a long bow, they are somewhat like churches for those who attend regularly. Certainly shopping is a kind of religious ecstasy for some. In either domain congregations are dwindling. Paradoxically perhaps, the ecstasy of the online bargain buy threatens the structures of shopping. Yet these can be beautiful places. The deco Myer store in Bourke Street comes immediately to mind. We called it Myers when I lived there, with the affection and contempt we have for familiar institutions. Myer was part of the fabric of Melbourne life. When the Olympic Games were held there in 1956, the emporium gave much support. With other juniors from the advertising department I ran about doing this and that. I was briefly a courier delivering dispatches to the front line, and for this I was given free tickets to watch Betty Cuthbert run and to watch in dismay the fiery water polo match between Russia and Hungary, the latter having just been invaded by the former. Around that time the Myer Music Bowl was built in the great public gardens, and well before I worked in this focal area of the city, I had laid lawns and distributed seed over a field in the future Olympic Village, working in my school holidays for a landscape gardener. All this was long before shop girls – I am shocked to learn – became disdainful parodies from Kath and Kim. To Myers we will return.

Before we leave that that special region, I regret to say that a great run of shop awnings with elegant fluted columns were removed down Swanson Street because the powers that were thought that visitors would laugh at this old fashioned streetscape.

It is also a paradox of sorts that, just before the threat of online shopping, huge shopping complexes seemed to gather every known saleable item into cities within cities, incidentally killing the corner store. But enough little shops remain that we might see the entire shopping spectrum before us and fear its passing. Some of us, that is. I wonder that you can’t see it: the ancient glamour of goods in profusion. The glamour of things for sale. Rare shopkeeping families still live above their businesses. You might be old enough to remember that strange feeling when you caught one of them going upstairs to domesticity. To puff a fag perhaps, prepare dinner or take a nap. All of it is apart, yet of the cities and suburbs in which it stands, and to which it often lends a prime identity.

Shops in the suburbs are outposts of shopping’s kingdom, those in the city are glamour central but shopping’s Vatican is surely the arcade. Pedestrian streets and lanes run off the main thoroughfares into a shopping state, possibly self – governing with its own constitution. I think of the Block Arcade in Melbourne, at whose heart there is a dome of glass and one beautiful curved shop window beside the spiral wooden stairs that lead to mysterious small businesses in the corridors above. That curved window is much like one I used to see in childhood at Maroubra Junction in Sydney. There was a bike shop nearby, in whose window I saw Australia’s Russell Mockridge riding on rollers to demonstrate a friction-driven night light clamped to his handlebars. Such wonders occur among shops. In Melbourne there is also the Royal Arcade with ruby glass on the side walls just below the vaulting, an elaborate old striking clock and the wooden Norse figures of Gog and Magog. In Sydney there is the galleried Strand Arcade with its wrought iron, and Queen Victoria Building, which is also a giant arcade within a single free standing sandstone structure of some grandeur. Melbourne’s Barry Humphries once lent his voice to protests against the building’s then-imminent destruction. Some years later I saw Humphries in the building he had helped save, gazing up at the glass barrel vaulting and then chatting with staff at a coffee counter.

All these precincts have elements of the art gallery in their window displays, and in the tables in lanes echoes of Paris when it was the city of artists, philosophers and cafe idlers. Not so perhaps the brief or endless shopping streets with their prosaic grocers, delicatessens, butchers, suburban solicitors offices and hardware stores. They are fascinating too, and of course they have their clothes shops – stylish and budget – outdoor cafe tables and windows full of jewellery and watches.

These all are places where those of us not given to shopping fever can wander alone or meet friends. People stand studying goods. They hurry and mill. This is our connection to the ancient markets. Barter and haggling are gone. Likewise camels. But something still draws us that is more exotic than the offices in which we work. Will people throng in the cities when shops and stores are gone? Or will the cities belong entirely to office workers. What will become of these places when almost everything is bought online or at vending machines? Who will regret the grandeur that has passed? Some buildings will be recycled, like the great industrial cathedrals of England or the finger wharves of Sydney. Some will be demolished and some will undoubtedly be hollowed out for more apartments.

What is this to me?

My first full time job after leaving school in the 1950s was with Myers, first as a junior and then – still a teenager – a layout artist in the advertising department, which was then in-store. When I was a junior working for one of the ad men I hated to go down through the emporium to have the layout checked – prices, headlines, copy – with a department head or buyer. The latter were all women and some of these dames were very tough indeed. Also quite pretentious in their way and utterly contemptuous of those who were not familiar with the nuances of their world. When I saw a TV doco recently of Dianne Vreeland, famous editor of Vogue amongst other things, she seemed like the supersonic incarnation of all retail store buyers. I actually hated them then, but weirdly miss them now. They all seemed to wear black. Certainly Mrs De Nice did, and she took me under her wing when I became the youngest ever to design ads that actually appeared in the papers. Our corner was the hairdressing and cosmetics departments. Speaking of Vogue, I deeply loathed the spreads in which models walked past crowds of gawking peasants in Sicily or somewhere, apparently stricken by constipation or the world’s worst migraines. Actually they were nauseous with contempt. Mrs De Nice opened another dimension of all that to me. She was Jewish, sophisticated certainly, but also very thoughtful and kind to her awkward working class apprentice.

Immediately the nature of those expeditions down into the store then changed.

If not a city, the store was at least an ocean liner. The Bargain Basement was far below, Miladys Boutique high above. Sometimes I would encounter Kenneth Myer, the young heir apparent, strolling through the store, dark and shining, handsome and amazingly friendly. Should a shop assistant call from behind a counter he would stop and talk, often cracking a joke and addressing the worker by name. He was utterly relaxed in his beautiful suit. This was the passage of retail royalty.

Many years later I saw Ken Myer at the National gallery in Canberra. I remembered him, I reasoned without complete conviction, so perhaps he would remember me. And so indeed he did. In fact he asked us to join him and his Japanese wife for lunch. I was with my Chinese girlfriend and it was only days before we would leave for Japan where she lived intermittently. Within weeks of arriving in Kyoto, where I stayed at my friend’s place for six months, we read that Ken Myer and his wife had been killed in a light aircraft crash in Alaska. This was quite a shock, but I did not see it then as a portent. In fact Kenneth Myer had long since tired of the great emporium and devoted much of his time to committees planning other cultural structures in Melbourne. The Victorian National Art Gallery and the performance space at the beginning of St Kilda Road are two in which he had a hand. Briefly he was Chairman of the ABC. To me he will always be the Merchant Prince. That line has ended.

There was once a time when Myer in Melbourne and Farmers in Sydney had an agreement that they would not open a store in the city of their rival. Can you remember who owns those cities now?. Myer owns Farmers, or did last time I looked. When it has all gone we will move on, but let us appreciate it for a moment, or at least imagine what it meant to other generations. Will my generation tell their grandchildren that we once saw and entered Myer, Buckley and Nunn, Grace Brothers, Georges, Farmers, Anthony Horderns, David Jones; perhaps even Macy’s, Selfridges and Daimaru? Will it mean anything?

P.S. Grace Brothers Of Broadway

Presumably it is a coincidence that a long-established Sydney department store lent its name to a fictional institution in the British TV comedy series Are You Being Served? Or perhaps someone in UK television visited Sydney or read a Sydney newspaper and decided that that was the right name. Perfect. Down the road from where I live, at the Parramatta Road end of Broadway and opposite Sydney University, the large cream buildings of Grace Brothers Of Broadway still stand. A narrow street divides them and then one of those is further divided by a lane. On each of the two stubby but detailed clock towers on either side of the dividing street and directly above Broadway there is a circle of winged creatures with female breasts. Griffins I thnk they are. They support two globes, once I think of copper but now milky Perspex with reinforcing hoops of steel. These remind me of the globe that stands in the clouds above the Daily Planet building where Clark Kent works as a mild mannered reporter.

Those buildings are no longer Grace Brothers but the Broadway Centre. I love the place still. There are lots of babies, some only weeks old, and small children who sometimes make a break for freedom, pursued by frantic parents. I have been one of those frantic parents and sometimes wish I was again.

The last time I visited the original Grace Brothers – long before online shopping – it seemed weary and deserted. In the basement I saw a coffee mug that was just fine and remarkably cheap. I took it off the shelf, weighed it in my hand and, well satisfied, stood with it before the deserted cash register. Staff passed me without a glance, though I soon began waving the item at them. No reaction. I stepped toward them and they swerved and looked the other way. I was the only aspiring customer down there among the cups and plates, mugs and saucers and there was clearly something about me that repelled all grace Brothers employees.

Finally I began throwing the mug up towards the high pressed plaster ceiling and catching it. A few times it touched the ceiling with a tiny ‘bing’. This was mildly satisfying, but the mug was still not mine. Finally I shrugged my shoulders and strolled off with it – my one and only act of shoplifting in adulthood. Glancing over my shoulder occasionally, I went up the lane and emerged on Glebe Point Road. Home was maybe one hundred and fifty metres away but I went into a coffee shop instead and asked them to make a flat white for me and serve it in my new mug. The young girl looked at me for a while, began to smile and then shrugged her shoulders and took the mug back behind the espresso machine. ‘What’s it like?’ she asked, after I’d taken a sip. ‘Excellent,’ I said. ‘I think I’ll buy it’

‘Or maybe not,’ I said very quietly.

Recently I was startled to learn that indifferent and superior staff ignored you even in Myers of Melbourne. Just as they did in Kath and Kim. If you leave Daimaru in Kyoto late in the day, at the main door you are bowed out by a line of uniformed girls of surpassing cuteness with voices like canaries. Or you were when I lived there. Please don’t tell me any different.

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