Shopping malls are like airports. Thousands of people pass through them, they're all the same inside, you have to park miles away and they never have good coffee. In fact, shopping malls are arguably worse than airports because when you leave, you go home again instead of somewhere different.
On the other hand, no strip – or on-street – shopping centre is ever the same as any other, they attract smaller crowds, you don’t have to park in another suburb or get mugged in the car park, and you are more likely to find good coffee.
This series will take you down some of my favourite Melbourne shopping strips. Your list might be different. I haven’t visited them all.
Puckle Street, Moonee Ponds
Puckle Street makes this list for one reason: I virtually grew up in it. My mother and father shopped there every Saturday morning of my childhood and I went with them along with any other willing siblings, until we got older and rebelled. I didn’t return until I was sixteen when I got a job in the menswear store next to Sim’s Sports, and they used to come and visit me in the shop and I’d try to sell my father a shirt or a pair of braces. He never bought.
But in the 1960s we’d follow mother and father up and down the strip. They’d split up and he’d go to the greengrocer while she went to the butcher. On rainy mornings my brother and I stayed in the car, parallel-parked outside Gilbertson’s or Ezywalkin (I never realised until later that the name was just a bad pun) or Kift’s or Plarre’s cakes or the TAB arcade. This was the golden era of neon and the verandahs were underhung with flickering signs. H. G. Palmer had white, rounded Astor refrigerators and His Master’s Voice televisions in the window and Victa lawnmowers lined up out the front. Coles and Woolworths were variety stores then. Maples sold linoleum cut from huge rolls. The supermarket era had not commenced and the two competing grocery stores were Silman’s and Moran & Cato. Take your pick. We shopped at Silman’s, a huge barn of a place with a soaring ceiling and a fine coat of flour on everything. Delicatessen at the front, tinned goods in the middle; and dry goods counter at the rear, where a long, narrow sunlit walkway led through to the car park at the back. Biscuits by the bag were served over the counter, from large paper-labelled tins reached down by the grocer from a high shelf. Broken biscuits were half price. Guest's teddy bears are everybody's favourite, a sign read.
Today you can buy most things in Puckle Street but you can’t buy a banana. There are no greengrocers left. You have to go to Coles or Safeway and neither is in the street itself. Puckle Street is a café strip and the locals in their Ed Hardy t-shirts sit over endless lattes and big breakfasts and whisper conspiracies and gossip and read the Herald Sun. In between the cafes are look-alike fashion stores that sell clothes that came out of a container ship from China. They tried to remodel the place as the Chapel Street of the north. It didn't work. The four banks have large signs in their windows, all advertising lower rates and better service. Every now and then, pale men wearing tracksuits walk into the Cash Converters store carrying large electrical items on their shoulders.
Despite all that, Puckle Street still has a certain charm. The ornate Victorian or Edwardian top storeys crumble quietly overhead while the winter sun creeps under the south verandah and warms the cafes, and the aroma of toasted sandwiches and coffee drifts up the street. The newsagent has the best range of magazines and newspapers on this side of the city, and Sims Sports is one of the oldest remaining shops on the strip. My first task each morning at the menswear store next to Sim’s was to sweep the footpath out the front. Meanwhile Sim’s owner, Don Furness would be sweeping his shop. We used to chat and pretend we were a couple of street sweepers. Don died in the 1990s. Today his son runs the store. I still buy my walking shoes there. You walk to the back of the shop and up two rickety flights of timber stairs dating to the 1920s and past the poster of Linford Christie and there in the upstairs room is the largest range of running and walking shoes in Melbourne.
Lemon Soul. It used to be the Glen Ord cake shop, a Devonshire tea kind of place beloved of old Moonee Ponds matrons. Now it’s all modern café and acid colours and lower case lettering, but they still make the cakes and you can still get Devonshire tea. Try the thick pancakes drowned in red berries, syrup, ice-cream and cream.
Bruno’s. The time warp coffee lounge marches on. Bruno's decor has transcended outdatedness and is now the embodiment of what Smith and Brunswick Street cafes try so hard to re-create. Try the chicken, avocado and cheese open grill with house-made potato salad and coleslaw on the side. And coffee, of course.