In the 1950s and ’60s, my nana and grandad, former darlings of the Moonee Ponds Racing Club, high society of the northern suburbs and ‘car salesman extraordinaire’, apparently fell on hard times. As a child, I had no knowledge of the wherewithal, I just knew Nana and Grandad bought a haberdashery shop in Brunswick, Victoria, and moved in behind it.
She was Jessie Elizabeth, though no one called her Jess, Jessie or even the erroneous Jessica; to everyone she was ‘Beau’. I was never told why. He was Benjamin George, and they were Ben and Beau to all and sundry. Ben Hooper was a big man and even as a child I knew he looked like Winston Churchill! Same height, rotund figure and booming voice that we heard on the Astor Mickey radio. I doubt Grandad was interested in my brother and I … I think he just tolerated us.
He was a ‘Very Successful Car Salesman’ we heard constantly. He worked Saturday mornings decked out in a three-piece navy pin-stripe suit and smart hat, much thumb-crooking in the fob watch pocket and cigar puffing. After midday closing he would head off to the races, staggering home somewhat worse for wear on a Saturday night with a bottle of Black & White whisky for Nan and a bunch of violets, her favourite flowers. Blushing like a girl, she’d say, “Oh Ben, you silly ole bugger”.
Then Grandad died, ‘too soon’ everyone said, leaving Nana alone living behind the shop, so Mum and Dad decided I should spend every second weekend with Nan ‘to keep her company’. What a world I found — just everything and more an imaginative seven-year-old child could want! My grandmother must have had the patience of a saint.
Huge cartons of wool. Industrial-sized rolls of brown paper loaded onto a large black cast iron stand with wicket ‘teeth’. Lots of little brown cardboard boxes of ribbons, elastic, suspenders and safety pins of all sizes. Cellophane-wrapped packets of black, white and beige gloves, day and evening length! Packets of needles and bobbins and threads of every colour. Hosiery, bras, stockings, garter belts and dead-skin coloured corsets.
A myriad tubes containing every colour and size button a person could crave. Wonder of wonders, if your required coloured button was not in stock, there was a button-making machine! Just bring in your material and whammo — self-covered buttons! I loved that huge heavy cast-iron machine, and to keep me amused, Nana let me make so many buttons that she must’ve gone berserk, but she never said anything except: “That’s lovely, Darling. We’ll try to sell them tomorrow”. To this day, I don’t believe she ever sold one. Glory only knows what she did with them all.
Then there were the baby clothes, much of which Nan knitted herself. Full layettes: bonnets, berets, booties, vests, pilchers, shawls and cardigans. Jumpers and leggings. Most of Nan’s regulars, like Mrs Jenkins, would drop by, peruse the merchandise, yak on forever, but never buy anything. “Just called in to see how you’re keeping and if you’ve any new lace in, Beau. Such a lovely grand-gel you’ve got there. Must be on my way now. Cheerio.”
In the large brass-fronted display window were things I was “never ever to touch”. Statues of ballet dancers or fairies sitting on mushrooms. Lithe ladies in flowing robes reaching up for something that wasn’t there. A ceramic robin on a branch, a ‘little boy blue’ lamp, a China spoon rest, and a tea set that was on display for so long the pattern had faded.
Also up front were the latest in Paton’s Wool knitting patterns, a fiddly array of crochet hooks and skeins of cotton, and discretely displayed above eye level was the odd negligee, corsets, spencers, bras and many packets of stockings — with seams and without!
The ‘Lay-By Section’, covered up by a plastic shower curtain, was never empty. I often asked her: “Why don’t people come back for their things?” For me, she had no answer, but knew only too well that Brunswick was undergoing dynamic change. The Greek and Italian communities were beginning to thrive and the traditional Aussie shops were being shunned by the new residents.
So it came to be — it wasn’t too long before our lives changed forever.