15 March 2024

Where have all of Canberra's interesting shops gone?

| Peter Strong
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black and white photo of map

Paper maps of the world were once indispensable, and the shops that sold them a treasure trove. Photo: Wikipedia commons.

I recently had need of a map – a real map made of paper, that folds up. Like the old days.

It was very hard to find and eventually I got one from a friend who had an old map hidden away. But it made me remember the ‘Map World’ shop that used to be in the Jolimont Centre in Civic.

It was a great shop. There were topographical maps of all sorts of places right across the world and traditional maps of anywhere and everywhere. Now of course there is Google Earth and GPS.

The then owners of that shop told me how people would come and browse for hours as they imagined places they had never been and – in their minds – transformed topographical maps into 3D images. It was a great shop.

What else has changed in the world of little niche businesses? We often hear of the death of this business or that business but has that happened, the same as for map shops?

Bookshops were meant to be doomed but, so far, the small independent bookshops continue to flourish as enough people still like a proper book they can leave lying around and pick up again when they’re ready.

Parents like a good book they can read to the kids and that the younger kids can chew on and throw around as they see fit. The very large bookshops have gone as they could not match the personal touch of small shops.

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Video shops have well and truly disappeared – our movies are all online now. None of the joy or disappointment of wandering through the endless shelves looking for something new and interesting to amuse oneself at home.

Music stores – or record stores as we sometimes called them – have pretty much disappeared. But in the day, there would be mega stores like Virgin Records or our own Impact Records here in Canberra, selling millions of albums and some EPs and singles.

We would browse for hours and put on the headphones or go into a sound-proof booth to listen to the latest hits and back-listed music. Now all gone, as Spotify and online sources take that space. Although we have seen a resurgence in the use of vinyl, mainly by hipsters.

We also see service stations have changed, where once they were in most suburbs and owned by a motor mechanic who sold petrol and repaired and serviced people’s cars.

A lot of car owners in those days knew their mechanic and apprentices by first name, knew our cars like the backs of their greased hands and each vehicle’s odd quirks. Now servos are retail outlets with, sometimes, a mechanical business attached.

Remaining newsagents have changed dramatically. We used to be confronted by endless piles: the five or six major national papers, some local publications, various international papers such as the New York Times or the London Gazette. There were magazines for every interest, hobby and pastime.

The newsagent delivered thousands of papers each morning and householders would be quite unhappy if the paper didn’t arrive. Physical papers and magazines still exist but nowhere like back in the day.

All suburbs had a milkman (now we would say a milk-person?) who delivered thousands of bottles of milk to households, collecting empty bottles as they delivered full cream milk. Now disappeared.

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We’ve also seen the demise of family-owned hardware stores. The monster hardware store has destroyed these smaller niche outlets. Such a shame, as locals would get to know the expert staff, who understood each customer’s projects and needs.

Of course, the ‘corner shop’ went away a long time ago. Someone told me they never had a chance in Canberra because we didn’t have many corners.

Which businesses still thrive? Butchers, bakers, cafes, restaurants, hairdressers, pharmacies, pubs and clubs, bicycle sales and repair shops, some specialist shops and outlets, clothing and footwear, local supermarkets.

They may not be around in the numbers they once were, but people still like to feel and see things they will wear or eat or drink. They like expert advice from professionals. Most people also like other people and enjoy company.

Shops and little businesses will always survive in one form or another, but they have to change to meet the times. Hasn’t it always been so?

Unless governments favour big businesses and big money? That’s a different issue – for next time.

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People used to pay a bit more for local. Now they don’t care and would rather get a cheaper item made overseas than to support local (even if it is an inferior product)

Peter Kelley3:40 pm 20 Mar 24

Board game shops are making a resurgence and there are some quirky gems if you look. LFG at Kambah Village is my pick. Sitting between a vape shop and a boutique spirit retailer it has the best community around and staff who really know games. Jolt Games in Mitchell attracts the miniature army crowd and has many tables to play on. I still miss The Games Cupboard (Woden and Belconnen) but the new crowd give me some of the same vibe.

HiddenDragon8:28 pm 19 Mar 24

The global (mainly) and national forces which have worked against the survival and creation of niche businesses have been exacerbated in Canberra by ACT government policies which are all about deriving as much revenue as possible from every square metre of leased land, with the result that leasing or buying commercial premises in Canberra is not for the faint-hearted.

Hard heads (particularly those who never stray far from the public teat but think that Darwinian competition is a good idea for others) might say “so what, that will ensure the highest value use of the land” (or words to that effect). The real world problem with that glib view is that it leaves little room for innovation and creative experimentation and tends very much towards more of the same safe money-spinners which rely on a captive local market with plenty of discretionary spending power.

This state of affairs may not be a particular concern for as long as the federal budget keeps pumping the requisite billions into the local economy, but with that budget in chronic structural deficit, and with the economy of the largest buyer of Australian exports in serious trouble, it may not be too long before there will be regrets about the businesses (not just in retail) which Canberra has missed out on.

where’s the disclosure about being a declared candidate for the next election?

Crazed_Loner12:01 am 22 Mar 24

How is that relevant to the content of the article?

There are still some but they are not in the malls. Try these in ‘old’ Kingston: The second hand record shop on Eyre Street and the chai and roti shop almost next door. THere’s more but if I list them it will seem like a promo.

Then there’s Dynomite Records in the Kambah shops.

Many of disappeared when they couldn’t afford rents in the mega-malls.

This might help answer your question…


Peter Funnell1:19 pm 19 Mar 24

In the case of many I suspect they have ‘gone broke’.

A good trip down memory lane, Peter. I remember all of those and have watched them disappear as technology and people’s habits changed through the decades. And getting a job on a milk float was an easy way for a fit teenager to earn some pocket money in those days.

One I’ll add to the list is department stores, such as Myer, Grace Brothers and David Jones. People typically make a beeline to shops which specialise now, rather than shop at the large behemoths (although I do like to browse through them occasionally for therapy).

Gregg Heldon8:33 am 19 Mar 24

Landspeed and Songland are great record stores and I drive to Sydney a couple of times a year to go to Utopia, the best record store in the world. JB have really cut back on their selection of CDs which I find disappointing.
I also like maps and still get the yearly updated Canberra and region UBD Gregory’s one. I like a good travel guide too. Book stores still have them but the range isn’t as great as it used to be here in Canberra.
I also still buy physical magazines. Music mostly now you can’t get the Big League anymore.
People can call me old, outdated, a dinosaur, an idiot, quaint, whatever, but I like physical things and I will not change my stance on that. And I like going into the stores to get those things too.

Agree 100%…hopefully Landspeed and Songland can survive for many years to come. I also love a trip to Utopia (and Red Eye Records just around the corner)

Utopia is an absolute must stop if im ever in Sydney.

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