They’re a rite of passage for many on a summer’s day – walking home from school, you might stop to buy a cheap bag of mixed lollies with your pocket money, or an iceblock to relieve the heat of the afternoon. But as you grow, so do they grow – as a last resort for that loaf of bread and carton of milk. They’re a Saturday morning refuge to collect the weekend paper, or a spot to sneakily grab a trashy magazine for the bus ride home. They’re the Australian general store.
You know the ones – that little shop with nothing else around stocking an assortment of things you might need in an emergency. There’s a section for babies, late night munchies and even a deli cabinet. But in the face of extended supermarket hours and late night petrol stations stocking it all, how does the humble general store survive? What keeps us coming back in our time of need?
“People mostly drop in for ice cream, soft drink, lollies for the kids and news papers,” says Ruby Leong, owner of General Store for You in the backstreets of Naremburn. Leong and her husband have been running the store for four years, but it’s been a general store for as long as local memory stretches back.
Leong believes that the value of the general store lies in its ability to service the local community without sending customers driving to the big supermarkets and faceless shopping centres. Being a lone shop on a suburban backstreet is a perfect spot for the general store.
“We meet so many of the people who live nearby, some we know by name. It’s very friendly,” says Leong, who is a local herself, residing behind the shop with her family.
For Tony Yang of G&M Mini Market on Perry Street in Lilyfield, location is everything. “For our area there’s not much else available close by,” says Yang, who has been running the shop for 15 years. “Other places ended up with big supermarkets, but where we are there has not been much change, so we survive.”
Yang points out that even general stores with good locations have still had to adapt to survive. “In the old days you came to the corner shop for groceries, bread and household items – but now it’s changed. We’re more like convenience stores now, with ice creams, drinks, phone cards and packets of chips. Some people will buy sugar or salt, or pet food and laundry powder. But it’s not so much groceries now.”
Over on the corner of West and Lodge Streets in Balgowlah, it’s certainly the location that keeps people stopping by. With a post box out the front and handy parking both right at the door and in the surrounding streets, you’re never short of a place to pull up according to local Toby Miller-Hall. “It sells everything, plus they rent DVDs and it stays in business because it has short term parking right out the front."
One of the biggest challenges faced by the general store is a drop in newspaper sales. “Since I’ve taken over we’ve slowly been selling less newspapers,” says Leong. “More and more people get their information elsewhere. It makes it hard for the little stores to survive.”
But when times get tough for these places, some respond with bigger changes – like the old general store York’s Corner on Tambourine Bay Road in Lane Cove. Not far from a school, next to a playground and now churning out Toby’s Estate coffees, locals happily line up for a paper and a brew on any given day, as well as loaves of bread, gourmet pantry items and a tight selection of deli goods. Whilst the fare that they stock might have gone a bit upmarket since the days of the 5c frog, there’re still little bags of lollies to be had for just a few coins, proving that when it comes to the iconic Australian shop, you can dress yourself up all you like, but you’re still the general store to us – and that’s what keeps us coming back.
General Store for You: 76 Northcote Street, Naremburn
G&M Mini Market: 67 Perry Street, Lilyfield
York’s Corner: 53 Tambourine Bay Road, Lane Cove
Balgowlah General Store: Corner West and Lodge Streets, Balgowlah
Agostino’s Corner Shop: 25 Pembroke Street, Epping
Sub Newsagent: Corner Lawson Street and Neild Avenue, Rushcutters Bay
G&L Mixed Business: 58 Moverly Road, Maroubra