Sydney has never been sentimental.
In the 10th most expensive city in the world, coffee shops spring up like weeds, and every second apartment block is a warehouse conversion. Inner-city, ex-industrial, Alexandria has long been a suburb on the gentrification trail.
Norm Musung opens up the shop at 6AM. Winter mornings are cold, but the motors of the fridges keep the shop warm overnight. The papers, bread and milk are delivered over the next hour. Soon a sunbeam will come in through the side door right on schedule and light up the counter where Norm sits on his stool reading the Sydney Morning Herald. His work uniform is ideal for bouncing around the shop: sneakers, tracksuit shorts, a tucked-in San Francisco t-shirt, and a parka. He’s 5’ 6″, and fit. His open face hardly shows the wrinkles of fifty plus years. Kids and adults on their way to work and school lean in and sing out “Hi Norm,” reassured to hear him yell out their names in turn.
I still remember the robbery a few years back. The news spread, neighbour to neighbour. “Did you hear? Norm got stabbed, fighting off two robbers.”
I saw the police interviewing him on my way to work that morning. They looked out of place crowded into the shop’s side entrance in their navy paramilitary uniforms. Later I heard the toned down version in Norm’s dry understated style.
At first he thought it was a joke, not a robbery. He’d never seen anyone run inside the shop before.
The first guy had a towel over his face and went for the cashbox: “At 7am there’s only a $20 float in there anyway.” It took a little while for Norm to register what was happening, then the other guy who’d been waiting in the car came in. “They were standing really close, and either he pushed me or I pushed him to get out. Then they ran, jumped in their car, and drove off. I was in shock, but people must have heard calling out, because the neighbours came in and then someone said, ‘oh you’re bleeding’.”
Norm didn’t make a fuss, just another flesh wound.
Last year a Woolworths supermarket opened up a few blocks away. Inside, the queue for their self-service checkouts is regularly longer than the one tended by a human. Shoppers browse long sterile aisles of produce, earbuds plugged into their phones, insulated by technology.
Norm’s shop is laid out with exquisite irregularity. Neat, with no musty smells or dust on old stock, everything in its place. A metal potato chip stand is next to the counter, a cash box behind him, and a glass showcase to the side displays Jatz crackers. The floor of the shop is a mish-mash of linoleum strips, rugs, mats, and concrete blocks to spread the weight of humming fridges full of coke, milk, ice-cream, and ice blocks over the floorboards. Home-made wooden shelves hold necessities: washing powder, cans of tomatoes, bread, potatoes, and lemons. Photos of Norm’s family sit framed behind the counter next to bottles of whisky (presents still in their boxes).
It was a shock when Norm told me he was selling. It seemed wrong somehow, seeing the shop empty as he prepared it for auction.
“Come out the back. I’ll show you something,” says Norm in his thick Australian accent. He leads the way outside, closing up the shop behind him but no longer needing to hang his hand-drawn laminated signs off the nail at the top of the door.
BACK IN TWO MINUTES
BACK IN FIVE MINUTES
BACK IN TEN MINUTES.
A Tip Top bread sign is screwed to the brick wall above us and on the street a few steps away NO PARKING is hand-painted across a roller door in large letters. Norm lifts it to reveal the shed behind the shop; three piles of wardrobe doors and walls are stacked on the concrete floor. One pile is made up of curved varnished wooden doors while two others stack parts of IKEA and other portable wardrobes.
“I had to take them apart to get them down the stairs, they’re too narrow. The old varnished wardrobe was Mum’s, all fine work, heavy and substantial, made in the ’30s and ’40s with nails everywhere. The newer ones just have a basic skeleton, easy to pull apart after you got the doors off. You just whack them. There were 11 cupboards. There are still more upstairs, and two old sewing machines.”
“Why don’t you sell it to the furniture stores? They’re full of old stuff,” I asked.
“Nah, they’re too full. I’ll call the council. Not even sure if they’ll take it.”
Bert Musung and his wife Gilda, second generation Chinese-Australians, bought the shop in 1951. It had the advantage of being on a corner, near a tram stop and a pub. They moved in with two young kids, with three more including Norm, born here.
“The shop was our lives, you know; everything revolved around that.”
In the four blocks of Belmont Street there were three mixed businesses, three corner stores, a butcher, a fish and chip shop, and a cake shop. A block either way 3000 people worked at the glassworks where a Bunnings Warehouse now sits and a massive Metters stove factory dominated a site now split up and flagged for apartments to house 6000 people.
“You stayed in Alexandria: Erskineville and Newtown were like a different world away.”
The local working class kids had opportunities not available in their parents’ generation. Norm’s brothers and sisters went on to study. “It was the time of Whitlam, and free university education was just starting to be accessible.” After school Norm left home, working in the city by day and studying to be an accountant part-time at a private business college by night.
Family is important in Chinese-Australian culture but the continuation of a family business which was once normal is now rare. Norm stepped in to help with the shop in the mid-eighties: “All my brothers and sisters, well, I was the only one that didn’t have kids or go to university.“ His father passed away in 1991 and Norm stayed on to run the shop. When the weather’s fine, he braves Sydney traffic and cycles across from his flat in nearby Randwick. Work hours are 6am to 7pm weekdays, closing at lunch on Saturday and Sunday with a few weeks off at the end of the year when business is quiet. His mother lived upstairs until she passed away last year.
Two-bedroom houses give Belmont Street a cramped inner-city feel. Buildings with full-length windows butt up against the pavement, usually not renovated sufficiently to hide their past lives. Where a stonemason’s yard once sat there is now a strip of ten three-story apartment blocks. Norm’s corner shop reassures old and new neighbours with its sense of continuity in a way the new Dan Murphy’s Liquor franchise, however convenient, cannot.
“When the prices started going up it was the trigger for people who’d been here for yonks to start moving out. Paul Keating deregulated the financial industry and people were getting better access to money. People move here to buy a two-bedroom semi, which is fine. Then later they want a three-bedroom house with a backyard so they sell and move to Marrickville or Croydon, the next step up.”
Television shows like My Kitchen Rules, The Block, and Better Homes and Gardens compete for top ratings in Sydney. Throughout Alexandria lighting, bedding, garden, furniture and white goods shops support the renovations economy.
Norm’s memories of old Alexandria are in stark contrast: “Back then people never renovated. You didn’t move every five or seven years; you stayed put for twenty or thirty. There was no reason to move, except for work. People didn’t go out. They certainly wouldn’t put in a new kitchen or a bathroom unless it was really old and grotty.”
The real estate agent told Norm to make himself scarce during the inspection; seeing the owner hovering puts off the punters. Long-time customers like me are anonymous to everyone but Norm, so I’m free to attend.
The door from the shop through to the house was always closed during business hours. If Norm’s grey-haired mum poked her head out to speak to him as you picked up a newspaper, you might get a fleeting glance inside. Just behind the door two hooks on the wall are labelled Mum’s keys and spare. A tiny room under the stairs features posters of a model T-Ford and a 1954 300SL Mercedes Benz on the wall. Norm later confirmed the room had been his. “You’d kill for a bedroom of your own back then.”
An older Greek-Australian neighbour walks in front of me at the inspection, “Sixty years I’ve been coming to this shop and I’ve never been upstairs till now.” A line of swirling patterns on red linoleum runs down the centre of the middle bedroom separating the original carpet on either side, evidence of a split room to give growing kids their first taste of privacy. Water-damaged abstract impressionist masterpieces of peeling paint decorate the walls.
Ten years ago very few of the Belmont Street kids went out trick or treating for Halloween. It built up quickly. Now hordes of children from all over Sydney have made Belmont Street, four blocks separated in the nineties by two cul-de-sacs, a once-a-year destination.
The impact of American culture is not new. Supermarket chains proved a success in Britain and the United States first but took time to spread through Australia. At first there were small supermarkets like Flemings in nearby Erskineville, buying in bulk and undercutting small neighbourhood stores. Retail on Belmont Street was decimated. From the ’60s through to the mid-’70s shops gradually closed until only Norm’s shop survived.
Before then, says Norm, “you didn’t have steak every night or things like that; you just had basics. People only bought what they needed to”.
Improvements in refrigeration and an increased standard of living changed buying patterns. The Australian Bureau of Statistics records that the average income grew by over 50 per cent in real terms from when Norm’s parents moved in. “You wonder how much are they going to throw out or not use now, with freezers and all of that?”
The shop was always the neighbourhood store. Norm is someone you would trust to leave your keys with for a friend to pick up if you weren’t going to be around. He asks people what they think of the issues of the day, and listens. He is someone I chatted with a bit more each time I swung by. Norm sells staple goods like ice-blocks that are good for hot summer days. He chooses to run his own race rather than trying to keep up with competitors, but business is business.
“What’s really dropped off is the passing trade. Since the price rise, the Herald getting smaller and going online… last year only about two or three people would buy the paper every day. It’s only the middle-aged and elderly people who buy. The decline in smoking was a big thing, the government intervention, the plain packaging. There was never any wastage with cigarettes. One in four people used to smoke; now it’s one in seven. ”
Small business is the bellwether of cultural change. Its effects are magnified in suburbs like Alexandria, close to the city, with high property demand driven by aspirational professionals. Federal election results show a small but consistent increase in both the Liberal and Green vote in Alexandria from the eighties on. It was once a locked-in working class Labor seat. Rugby League is still played on the oval on Saturdays but more BMWs and Audis are parked on Belmont Street these days.
Norm notices the change in his customers. “They’re a lot more affluent and a lot more demanding. Some would rather shop at a shopping centre or supermarket, something more modern and sleek. My shop is not like that and I don’t really want it to be. Those people just come in a couple of times, but some people like it.”
Everyone in the neighbourhood has their relationship with Norm. He invited his customers to pop in for a drink and snacks any night in his last week of business – his shout. The night I popped in the shop was overflowing with locals who’d brought snack plates, wine and champagne to share. I met people I’d walked past a dozen times, vaguely familiar, all of us on first name terms with Norm. He seemed surprised at the attention, and touched. We were happy for him but sad for what he, and we, were losing.
Auctions are a spectator sport in Sydney. Norm’s neighbours, customers and siblings stood around to watch the drama. Norm stayed on the edge of the crowd, then slipped into the shop, out of the spotlight, pacing, barely visible in the shadows behind the auctioneer. “I feel like one of the Christians being fed to the lions,” he confesses.
The auctioneer’s deep voice boomed across the street. “Don’t be shy folks. What am I offered for this property? This is a Zone A building suitable for retail or residential. A deceased estate that’s been in the one family since 1951, on a unique block on the corner of Maddox and Belmont, one of the best streets in Alexandria, in a very good area. Can we start with a bid of 1.5?”
Sydney is not a sentimental place.