From the sidelines: Ode to corner stores

ENDANGERED SPECIES: My grandfather, Arnold McGill OAM, eventually became one of Australia's leading ornithologists, but in his working life he was a storekeeper, seen here leaning in the doorway of the corner store in the 1920s.
ENDANGERED SPECIES: My grandfather, Arnold McGill OAM, eventually became one of Australia's leading ornithologists, but in his working life he was a storekeeper, seen here leaning in the doorway of the corner store in the 1920s.

This week, I just want to write a bit of a love letter to the humble corner store.

In a world of Woolworths, Amazons, and McDonald’s, the little corner shop seems a relic of the past, but I reckon the world hasn't got enough relics of the past left.

So my heart was warmed when I saw the story about Jen Wright and her reboot of the Elderslie Family Store – “Lollies under the counter, beetroot juice dripping from burgers and homemade preserves lining the shelves.”

Those first two things take me back to my sunny local childhood, and the third takes me back much further, as I come from a family of small storekeepers that fell into the trade by accident.

My great-grandfather Tom McGill was a blade shearer in the 1890s, and elected by his mates as their ‘shed rep’. That meant he was drawn into the famous shearing strikes of that era: unionists versus wealthy graziers, mounted troopers, injustice, and burning woodsheds.

A bit chewed-up and spat-out by his experiences, Tom traded his shears for a shop counter, opening a tiny bush store in the Warrumbungle Mountains in 1913.

He was only kept afloat because his nephew, Roy McGill, was a busy bore driller, erecting windmills, and purchased all his equipment via T.J. McGill Commercial Stores (a fancy name for what was really a slab hut).

One of my grandfather's closest allies against the supermarket giants was John Kernohan, father of Camden legend Liz Kernohan.

Sadly, Roy was killed on the Western Front in 1918, so Tom took his family to suburban Sydney where he re-opened his store. My grandfather, Arn, wanted to become a full-time scientist (he was a bird expert) but there was no money in that in the 1920s so he joined the family business.

Tom and Arn knew every customer by name, made sure poor mums didn't have starving kids in the Great Depression, and backed any good community cause. A typical small business.

Tom died in 1950, and in the 1960s when supermarkets began to threaten little shops, Arn started a partnership with other small shops to create a combined buying power to better compete – the ancestor of today’s IGA.

One of his closest allies against the supermarket giants was fellow shopkeeper John Kernohan, father of Camden legend and MP Liz Kernohan (which is why Liz and I always considered each other as “family”, even when we were at odds.)

Some of my fondest early memories, in the late 1960s, were of my grandfather’s shop – which still looked like it was stuck in the 1940s, from the old-fashioned shelves and scales, to the brown paper bags he put lollies in. How many of you have similar memories?

I recall a little shop on each suburban corner and feel sad as I see empty ones, like on Waminda Avenue, Campbelltown near St Pat’s.

Many of us also recall a Queen Street dominated by Bagley’s Newsagency, Ingall’s Menswear, Eve’s Florist, Richard’s Fabrics, Carolyn’s Frock Shop. And what about Ron Moore’s Minto Hardware (where you could find any nut, nail or spring for 10c in a paper bag, not in a plastic packet of 1000 for $10).

All gone now.

As has the McGill family store, finally defeated by supermarket predatory pricing in the early 1970s.

Jen Wright says she is determined to bring back a sense of “the halcyon days” to her Elderslie store. We all wish her well.

Corner shops might be a rosy-painted anachronism, but so is quality. Long may they both survive.