Beyond the shop counters and windows

In his latest work Beyond the Shop Windows and Counters, Vasilis Vasilas explores the personal narratives of the Greek Australian community post World War II

After his recent launch of When Freedom Beckons: The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Jewish Hungarian Journey to Australia, Sydney historian and prolific writer, Vasilis Vasilas is at it again with the release of his second book for 2017 Beyond the Shop Windows and Counters: Stories and Photographs of Sydney’s Current Greek Shops (Volume 1).

Having begun the project on Sydney’s long-standing Greek shops in 2014, the workload from compiling his second volume of Estonian stories Across Lands and Oceans… to Freedom and book of Ukrainian stories In Search of Hope and Home forced Vasilis to put this project aside. So when the opportunity arose to recommence it this year, Vasilis grabbed it.

“It was while I was waiting for my dear friend, Dr Michael Abrahams-Sprod to write the introduction for the Jewish-Hungarian book that I found time to recommence this project. It is an awful feeling leaving projects unfinished, so completing this first volume of Greek shop stories is a wonderful feeling.”

Having dealt with so many different themes in his previous books, including Greek football in Sydney, World War II, and the Korean War and post-World War II European migration, Vasilis explains this new project is just an extension of all of his work, “as the title of the book suggests, these personal narratives of Greek shop owners goes beyond the shop windows and the counters to look at the lives of the shop owners themselves. In essence, these are migrant stories too; these Greek migrants came to Australia with their suitcase full of dreams, worked hard to open their own businesses and went on to successfully maintain them.”

All the personal narratives in Beyond the Shop Windows and Counters transcend generations of Greek migration post-WWII, as the book begins with Panagiotis Karpouzis opening Olympic Deli in Bankstown in 1956 and goes through decades of new Greek businesses opening throughout Sydney.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the diversity of Greek shops included: while Greek migrants and food shops – such as cafes, milk bars, fish-and-chips, takeaway, charcoal chicken or yeeros shops – are synonymous in Australian history, Vasilis went beyond these food shops to include tailors, cobblers, florists, barbers, and hairdressers and others to provide a broader portrayal of the Greek community’s contribution to the Australian marketplace and business.

“When I went through the Sydney Morning Herald’s 2014 interactive online feature, The Old Shops of Sydney and saw the last of these specialty shops, whether they were delicatessens or cake shops, I quickly realised Greek migrants ran all these types of shops. They were everywhere in business! And this is what inspired me to begin this project.”

As Vasilis went on to explain,” the Greek Australian community found its own identity in the post-WWII period, with the Australian and Greek governments’ agreement on migration in 1952, tens of thousands of Greek migrants arrived in Australia every year and most of these migrants became urban settlers. In Sydney, they gravitated to suburbs close to the factories, workshops and other workplaces. For instance, they initially lived in the inner city suburbs such as Surry Hills and Redfern; then they moved onto Enmore and Newtown; they then moved onto Marrickville and Dulwich Hill. Other groups moved from Redfern to Mascot and Rosebery.

“As a result of this, Greek communities developed and there was subsequently a demand for shops to cater to Greek needs. Greek enterprise and initiative goes beyond the food shops; as there was a need to establish Greek-run soccer clubs like Pan Hellenic SC or rent out theatres (Lawson Theatre, Redfern) to show Greek movies, there was a need to establish delicatessens, cake shops, and butcheries. “For example, when Nikos Petrakis opened Diethnes in Sydney in 1952, he and his staff cooked Greek food.

“Newly arrived Greek migrants became customers in these Greek shops as there was no language barrier and the shop owner understands what this ‘nostalgic’ migrant wanted. Furthermore, the Greek migrant brought attitudes, behaviours and expectations from their homeland. In their villages, for instance, there were tailors and cobblers, so there was a natural demand for tailors and cobblers in Sydney. What developed with these desires and demands was the establishment of the first networks of Greek shops in certain suburbs, where Greek migrants could visit the butcher, fruiterers, bakers, tailor, barber and hairdresser all in the one place.”

As decades have passed, so many Greek shops of this migrant generation have shut down and Vasilis has tried to pay tribute to these people, and their shops, by capturing these personal narratives. He witnessed firsthand the sadness of such a shop shutting down with Giorgos Koulouris and his tailor shop in Dulwich Hill. ‘I interviewed Giorgos on the second last day before he handed over the key to the next tenant. After 37 years, he was shutting his shop, which up till then had become a vibrant meeting point for his friends. All his friends came by the shop to say their goodbyes… it was a very moving experience!’

In the same spirit of capturing the personal narratives before people pass away and they disappear, Beyond the Shop Windows and Counters pays tribute to this particular generation of Greek migrants. Through their longevity, operating over many decades, some of Sydney’s Greek-run shops have provided an enormous service to their customers and local area, and Vasilis pays tribute to them.

‘Beyond the Shop Windows and Counters: Stories and Photographs of Sydney’s Current Greek Shops (Volume 1)’ was released on Sunday 26 November. To purchase a copy, contact Vasilis Vasilas on 0422891190.