“Collopy for Toys” didn’t just sell toys.
Not so long ago, in the jaws of Melbourne’s historic Camberwell Junction, where 3 main roads intersect and distribute masses of people and cars in 6 different directions, there stood, nestled in amongst the hustle and bustle of it all, an iconic retail institution – a “jewel in the crown” – a toy shop.
And it was an institution. Everybody knew where it was, everybody bought toys there. Hopeful children instinctively lured parents and grandparents in through the doorway. Sometimes they even dragged them in.
But what awaited them inside the store is what separates the “now” from “yesterday”.
I can still see the enormous, genuine, delighted smiles on John and Barbara Collopy’s faces as they greeted you. You felt like you were the only person in the room. And it didn’t matter if you had been shopping there forever, or if you were wandering in aimlessly for the very first time. But one thing was guaranteed, you never left empty-handed, and you never left without a smile on your face. And you knew you’d be back, because you found the exact toy or gift that your were looking for, but more than that, you left with a bit of extra self-esteem. Barbara and John had taken the time to chat with you not only about the child for whom the gift was for – their age, likes and interests – but along the way they had also found out about you, and what you were all about. The issues facing the world, the state of the economy, and the prospects of Hawthorn winning the next AFL football flag usually got a good run as well. Any children accompanying their parents were greeted with a warm smile, asked their names, what their favorite sporting activities were, and, with a jovial wink of an eye, advised that it wasn’t too late to “get on the band-wagon” and inform their parents that they going to switch their allegiance to the Hawthorn Football Club. I bet a lot of people visited the store without even looking for a gift. They might have just been going past, and decided to stop in and say hello. Other shopkeepers were often to be found in there chatting away at the counter. Barbara and John were able to connect with people.
I can’t think of too many stores I could walk into and engage with in that way now. It seems, to me at least, that the rise of large retail franchised toys stores and globalization (with online shopping) has shifted the customer’s concept of “service” more toward accessibility and price; and away from a personalized shopping experience. Maybe that’s just me.
I can also remember stopping at our local petrol station before we became a self-serve society. A grubby, grease covered man in weathered overalls would release a broad smile and wave at us kids in the back seat of our family car as we pulled up next to a bowser at Dean’s Garage, on the corner of Balwyn and Belmore Roads, North Balwyn, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. We all sat there, frying in the scorching summer heat, windows all down (no Air-conditioning in those days), bare skin stuck to the burning vinyl seats and our midriffs getting seared, medium to well done, by the chrome metal seat belt buckles (for those of us in the back seat that actually had a seat belt), and we panted like dogs that have chased a ball for an hour.
“Fill ‘er up with super?” the attendant would cheekily ask my mother as she handed him the keys out the window so he could unlock the fuel cap.
“Yes please, and would you mind just checking the oil?”
Of course that was no problem, and the oily rag that dangled out of his back pocket and that swished like a tail as he strode past, was swiftly removed and readied for dipstick inspection. And all the while, his cheeky smile remained intact, only disappearing from view momentarily as he ducked under the car bonnet. If it was 35 celcius (100 degrees) in the shade, it must have been 45 celcius under that hood; but as he re-emerged, and wiped away the sweat off his brow, the smile on his face was just as wide, and would only widen further as he spotted and greeted another motorist pulling up behind us. By now the petrol bowser would be agitating slightly and the hose tightening and shuddering, indicating that car fuel tank was full of super, and that the bowser was getting anxious to serve the next vehicle.
I don’t miss cars without air-conditioning, but I do miss the greased, grinning man who went out of his way in the blistering heat to offer some good old-fashioned service. He wasn’t just dispensing petroleum, he was a friendly face that everybody knew. He, too, was able to connect with people.
“Collopy for Toys”, in the very heart of the Camberwell Junction, has been closed for quite a few years now, but I stroll past occasionally and can still mentally picture parents being towed into the store by their little people. “Dean’s Garage” is also long gone. It was converted into a good Chinese restaurant called the “Lion’s Den” and was popular for its delicious Yum Cha lunches, before the site was eventually redeveloped into an office building.
Whilst these businesses have closed down, and life moves on, it is important that we remember not to forget the old-fashioned standards that we have been lucky enough to experience. We cannot go back, but we can remember.
I remember that “Collopy for Toys” didn’t just sell toys.