Continuing south down Hotham Street, we reached the point at which East St Kilda becomes the small suburb of Ripponlea. On Glen Eira Road are various shops and small businesses, and traces of previous ones, that aroused our interest. Two buildings in particular caught our eye, though their fates have been quite different.
At the corner of Hotham Street and Glen Eira Road is quite a weird building. At ground level it’s a milk bar, plastered with all the usual signage for phone companies and newspapers. Above that, at second storey level, are red roofs and brick detailing suggestive of the Edwardian era, perhaps even (if you are generous) the Arts and Crafts style. On the corner is a toilet roll-shaped turret, with an inelegant flat roof slapped on top. If you look past all the crap at ground level, it’s quite an ambitious edifice.
When you look closely at the signage (two light boxes that have seen better days), you can make out the building’s name: Top Shop. But the light boxes are obviously a later addition. From a quick glance back at my 1946 Sands & McDougall directory, this used to be a confectionery shop. Given that it is still a milk bar and general store today, it may always have been that kind of business. I doubt it had anything to do with the fashion chain of that name, but who knows. Maybe there used to be a separate shop at the top, in that now shabby turret?
Crowning the composition, on the south wall a giant Coke can stands atop a rusty roof. Robin Boyd wrote long ago in The Australian Ugliness that Melbourne buildings often have some kind of unsuitable ‘feature’ stuck on them, which is certainly the case here. But you have to admire the boldness of the statement. What does this house need? A big Coke can!
Places like this arouse my curiosity. I haven’t seen anything quite like it in my travels around Melbourne. As I was standing and gazing, a local walked past and said cheerfully, “Horrendous, isn’t it?” Certainly, the air of neglect and the crass advertising make Top Shop less than stylish. But such oddities give me a sense of affection for whoever created them. You feel that it’s a building with some stories. Once, this strange corner building was someone’s dream. Who built it and named it? And why didn’t they find a better way to roof that corner turret?
Traces of other businesses can be seen when you turn right down Glen Eira Road and head towards the railway line. A little further down is a ghostsign for the Australian Leadlight Company.
Next door is the Village Garage with a good-looking gallery of hand painted signage, inviting motorists to get a ‘Safety Check’ on the ‘Same day’.
A little further down, there is a very faded ghostsign reading ‘Bootmaker’ at 66 Glen Eira Road. You can just make it out if you look carefully. The name above defeats me. I wonder if his boots lasted as long as his signage?
Almost opposite, at 73 Glen Eira Road, is one of the jewels of this part of town: Brinsmead Pharmacy, with its name still partially visible in a ghostsign. Unlike its near neighbour Top Shop, Brinsmead is a remarkably well-preserved Edwardian shop, still sporting many of its original features. To walk into Brinsmead is to get an impression of what it was like to visit a pharmacy of the era – which it continued to be until just a few years ago, although these days it is a florist. The spectacular mirrored display cases with stained glass and leadlighting are now a showcase for flowers, but you can still see various accoutrements of the chemist’s trade.
The architects of the shop were the well-known Melbourne firm of Sidney Smith & Ogg, with leadlighting by Thomas Duff and Bros, who were responsible for the stylish glass domes beside the door.
Inside it’s even more spectacular:
On the side wall of Brinsmead a couple of ghostsigns are visible. One of them, above a painted sign for Kodak film, a line of business which has disappeared from almost all chemists over the past decade, shows the name of C.F. Johnson, pharmacist here from the 1930s to the 1980s. The other, partially obscured, hints enigmatically at a product you once could buy: ‘Brinsmead’s In … Gives Pr …’.
The advertisement reminds us of the days when pharmacists used to make their own special products on the premises. It’s said that a hand lotion first made by Brinsmead in the 1920s was still on sale there in the 1980s. Some customers had probably been moisturising with Brinsmead’s lotion all that time.
But what was the remedy advertised on the wall? I stand there for a few minutes, trying to complete the words. Brinsmead’s indigestion remedy gives prolonged relief? Brinsmead’s incredible powder gives prompt results? Brinsmead’s indestructible corset gives protection beyond belief?
Here are some pictures of Brinsmead when it was still a chemist, a few decades ago.
Not far away, another ghostsign advertises ‘Summer drinks’. The faded words ‘Confectionery Palace’ are just about visible above. Like the Top Shop, this must have been a confectionery shop (of which Melbourne used to have thousands).
Top Shop and Brinsmeads, probably built at roughly the same time, and both intended to be quite special buildings in their day, have suffered very different fates. One has fallen into neglect and is a local eyesore, the other is celebrated as one of the most beautiful surviving Edwardian shops in Victoria.
Beauty is a subjective matter, of course. Brinsmeads is easy to admire, but Top Shop with its weird architectural features, vestiges of advertising and sense of decay has a crazy charm. It seems to embody the constant change and precarious existence of small businesses at the heart of shopping strips like this.