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A colourful hallmark of suburban life, the once ubiquitous corner shop often also operated as a milk bar or deli. The one-stop shop for milk and bread, mixed lollies and ice cream, tobacco, newspapers, they were also the place for a friendly chat.
Corner shop owners bought pantry supplies in bulk. Big sacks of flour, sugar and grains were divided into brown paper bags or weighed out on demand. Biscuits — plain or fancy — came in big square tins and there always broken ones at the bottom which might be rewarded to well-behaved children or sold off at much reduced prices. Buying a bag of broken biscuits was a bit like a lucky dip.
Many children experienced their first taste of independence walking, or riding their bikes, to the local corner shop. Either sent on an errand by their parents, ever hopeful of the chance to buy a treat with the change, or stopping off on their way home from school to spend pocket money on sweets.
As supermarket chains and service stations spread out across the country, smaller suburban stores didn’t stand a chance. People began to shop weekly, rather than daily, choosing to go by car rather than to walk and causing local stores to suffer a dramatic loss in trade and forcing many family-owned businesses to close down.
Luckily, in some neighbourhoods today, a new generation of shopkeepers are reinventing the humble corner store. Whether it be through stocking local produce, diversifying their services or using social media to get the word out — this willingness to adapt and commitment to customer service never goes out of style.
Here are five top corner shops from across NSW, then and now.
Wingello Village Store
This much-loved general store and post office sits in the heart of Wingello in the Southern Highlands. Its history dates back to 1865, according to the owner, David, who took it over 12 years ago after moving to the town with his wife and eight children.
Today, the store has a blog and its newsletter is packed with community information including the library bus timetables, school news, bin collection dates and game nights. ‘When people come in, they always get a warm greeting,’ says David. ‘Some of our older customers pop in every day on their daily walk, and we often get calls from people outside the town asking, “Have you seen grandpa today!?”’
After bushfires tore through the town on 4 January 2020, the store set up the Wingello Fire Relief Fund to help families in need. In the aftermath of the blaze, David was quick to open his doors, offering tea and coffee, hot meals and hugs.
Lilyfield G&M Corner Shop
In a quiet spot in Sydney’s inner-west, the Lilyfield G&M Corner Shop has been around for more than 40 years. Its current owner, Tony (pictured), has been behind the counter for 23 years.
A first-generation migrant from China, Tony had no experience running a shop before arriving in Australia. He jumped at the opportunity to take over the business because he wanted to build a better life for his family.
Tony has local customers who have visited the shop since they were little kids, the shop remaining a constant in their lives, a place of comfort and nostalgia. ‘I have many regular customers who still come in every single day. The older ones get the newspaper and top up their Opal Cards. They always say, “Tony don’t ever leave! We need you!”’
Wyrallah Road & Smith Street Corner Shop
In 1955, when Sheila and Bryan took over this corner shop in Lismore, they were an enterprising young couple keen to start a new chapter in their lives. They packed their bags and moved to the neighbourhood with their four children Jim, Marie, Maureen and Margaret and later Patricia.
Marie, who was 10 at the time, says they were literally ‘kids in a lolly shop’. As well as lollies and ice-creams the shop supplied the staples that families needed, seven days a week in the days before supermarkets became the norm.
‘During quiet times at the shop, we still had jobs to do. We weighed up sugar and salt, ensured the meat slicer was clean ... the shelves dusted and the floor swept,’ says Marie, whose parents sold the store in the early 1960s. ‘It was a valuable learning experience in so many ways.’
George & Dina's Corner Shop
You can find almost anything in Surry Hills these days, but back in the 1960s you’d go straight to George & Dina’s Corner Shop. Pamela, who grew up in the area, tells us it’s a place she’ll never forget.
‘My beautiful nanna Amy would write her shopping list out on a Saturday morning and off we’d go to buy the staples,’ she says. ‘I especially remember the bread section — it was way down the back of the shop in a special little area. Fruit and veg at the front and everything else in between.’
As a young child, Pamela was a frequent visitor to George & Dina’s, as well as the butcher next door, the local fruit and veg shop, the delicatessen, the newsagent and the pie shop. ‘So many memories … my uncle actually married the daughter of the paper shop!’
Mudgee Corner Store
This corner-store-turned-cafe in the centre of Mudgee is all about keeping it local, fresh and sustainable. Their motto: ‘We’re not your traditional corner store, we have so much more!’
The shop stocks its own homemade relishes and granola, as well as products from local artisans including candles, ceramics, chocolate, sourdough, honey and olive oil. They’ve even introduced an online ordering system, if you’re in a rush.
It’s a ‘fantastic cafe with excellent food, service and country hospitality’, says regular visitor Adam. ‘I was in need of a morning coffee and Mudgee Corner Store was nirvana found,’ says another visitor, ‘From the friendly good morning when you walked through the door to the cup of delicious coffee, it was perfect.’
This story appears in Openbook Spring 2021.