Could there be an unwritten rule that Melbourne barber shops born in the ’70s must feature at least one framed picture of Elvis? Or that every old-school espresso bar north of Thornbury is required to have a barely functioning yellow gumball machine sitting (sort of) pretty in the corner? Or that hi-fi repair shops need chequerboard vinyl flooring?

David Wadelton is a prolific Northcote-based photographer who’s dedicated his career to documenting these kinds of places. He runs the popular Facebook group Northcote Hysterical Society, where members (of whom there are more than 5000) post photos of Northcote, past and present.

His last book, Suburban Baroque, was an homage to the mid-century, terrazzo-filled suburban homes of post-war migrants from Europe who went on to settle in Melbourne’s inner north. This one, Small Business, is something of a companion piece – shot over 10 years – that goes inside milk bars, barbers, diners, shops and pubs, many of which were opened by migrants in a similar era.

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Some of the businesses are still open. Others – after weathering difficult decades, ownership changes and unfortunate deaths – have been left to gather dust.

“I’m not trying to teach lessons or anything like that,” Wadelton tells Broadsheet. “I’m just keen to document what I’m aware of being a very dramatic time of change in Melbourne.

“When you have larger – even global – chains dominating our shopping strips, these smaller businesses become very difficult to sustain.”

Part of the enduring appeal of each of these businesses is their timelessness. How little they’ve changed since they first opened. Step into any of the establishments chronicled in Small Business and you’ll immediately feel transported to another time and place.

One photograph in particular, of the Arthur Koniaras Barber & Tobacconist in Fitzroy, looks like it could have been taken in the ’60s. Only a few clues – an outdated home phone here, a 2010s magazine or sticker there – give the illusion away.

“There’s so much happening inside, isn’t there?” says Wadelton. “I love those really busy shops – full of details, and a life story basically on the walls for all to see.”

After owner Arthur Koniaras passed away, his eponymous barber shop closed. But next time you’re walking down Gertrude Street, take a moment to peer through the window – and keep an eye out for that picture of Elvis.

Small Business is a valuable window into an old Melbourne that’s disappearing. Fast. At least one-third of the businesses featured in the book never reopened after last year’s lockdowns, Wadelton wagers. How much longer will the others last? In the face of rising rents, the encroachment of gentrification, and family members passing away, many of these community institutions could be gone in the near future.

Small Business is available to buy from publisher M.33 or Readings.

wadelton.online