Purchase history: Melbourne stores that have stood the test of time

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Last year, the arcade assumed management and rebranded this Melbourne institution The Tea Rooms 1892. “We’ve gone to great lengths to make sure … there would be very little disruption between old and new,” says Block Arcade general manager Grant Cohen. There’s the same gold-trimmed white china, and the same chef creating window cake displays that attract queues and Instagrammers.

A large acid-etched mirror crowns the continuity that’s fundamental to the tea rooms’ enduring appeal. According to Cohen, it was made in Melbourne in 1891 for another arcade tenant, who “complained that people would come to the window just to adjust their hats” in the mirror. Moved to the tea rooms, “it’s been there ever since … I’m sure that mirror could tell a few stories.”

The Block Arcade, Collins St, Melbourne, thetearooms1892.com.au

The Mitre Tavern in Bank Place

The Mitre Tavern in Bank PlaceCredit:Angela Wylie

MITRE TAVERN

According to manager Alex Gray, it’s not uncommon for people to do a double-take when they see the Mitre Tavern. “It’s this little Hansel and Gretel cottage surrounded by a concrete jungle,” says the Irishman. “It reminds me a lot of back home,” he observes, pointing out low ceilings with big beams, and small doorways – which inspire a chuckle, because two staff “are about six-foot-eight, so they have to really duck”.

Among Melbourne’s oldest buildings, it was constructed as a residence around 1837. “It’s been a tavern continuously since 1868 – until COVID hit,” says Gray. He’s had conversations with patrons “who say generations of their family have been drinking here for a hundred years”. One showed Gray his father’s birth certificate with Mitre Tavern’s CBD laneway address as the place of birth.

Some may have never left this cosy, peaked-roof pub. “Our resident ghost is Connie Waugh,” a jilted mistress who apparently hanged herself here long ago. Gray has never seen Connie, but admits that “you do get chills, and glasses do tend to fall over for no reason”.

5 Bank Pl, Melbourne, mitretavern.com.au

FERGUSON PLARRE BAKEHOUSES

Steve Plarre has officially been working at Ferguson Plarre Bakehouses since he was 16, but he and his brother came in on Saturdays to help their dad out well before then. Now CEO, Plarre sometimes brings his own young daughters in, letting them “pack gingerbreads, and do other things they can’t muck up too much,” he says with a chuckle. His brother’s two teen daughters are on the payroll, which makes this a fifth-generation business.

It began in 1901 when pastrycook Eliza Ferguson established her Carlton catering business. A decade later, Otto Plarre, a German migrant in the same trade, opened a bakery in Moonee Ponds. This shop, now one of 87 Ferguson Plarre outlets, has a display of photos tracing the history of the two businesses, which merged in 1980.

There’s evidence to suggest European-trained Otto introduced the chocolate eclair to Australia. “I’ve never been able to prove it,” says his great-grandson Steve, but true or not he rates Ferguson Plarre’s fresh-cream eclairs alongside the vanilla slice as his lifelong favourites.

fergusonplarre.com.au

HILL OF CONTENT

A.H. Spencer chose an unlikely spot to open his bookshop in 1922. It was near the then-notorious Little Lon district, so “there were gangsters and lots of crime,” says the store’s current co-owner and manager, Diana Johnson. Spencer called his shop Hill of Content “because it was a place to go at the top end of Bourke Street where you could get away from all that”.

Spencer may have started a trend because, as Johnson points out, Florentino restaurant and Thomas’ Music soon opened nearby (the fine-music shop finally closed in 2018). Goodbye gangster Squizzy Taylor, hello Dame Nellie Melba, Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts, who were among Hill of Content’s early customers.

These days they include Barry Humphries, and “politicians who come down from Parliament House,” says Johnson. “We have lots of loyal customers,” including those in their 80s and 90s who first visited as children. There are also many inter-generational shoppers. “Every day we get stories of people” whose grandparents brought them to Hill of Content.

86 Bourke St, Melbourne, hillofcontentbookshop.com

The Wigs Cellar.

The Wigs Cellar.Credit:

THE WIGS CELLAR

Melbourne’s oldest independent bottle shop began as a general store in the 19th century. Exactly when is difficult to determine given the colony’s imperfect early records. “We’ve managed to trace our ABN back to 1892,” says The Wigs Cellar co-owner Lucien Smith, “but there’s evidence that we’re older than that.” One fact he is confident about: the business has “always sold liquor”.

It moved four doors down from its original address to the current premises 25 years ago, about a decade before Smith’s father bought The Wigs Cellar. There have been a few names over the years, but the present moniker has stuck since 1974. “We have people calling up from all sorts of places around the world thinking that we’re a wig shop,” says Smith.

The name actually refers to the many ‘big wig’ customers: barristers, QCs and judges working steps away from this legal-district store. All sorts are attracted by the large range, however, which includes rare and unusual products. “If it’s edible there’s probably a spirit made out of it, and we probably have it,” says Smith.

172 Queen St, Melbourne, thewigscellar.com

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MORE VENERABLE MELBOURNE BUSINESSES

Queen Victoria Market The southern hemisphere’s largest open-air market opened in 1878; qvm.com.au

Hearns Hobbies This Flinders Street Station retailer has been a favourite with fanciers of model kits and tiny cars since 1947; hearnshobbies.com

King and Godfree The Carlton grocer established in 1871 has become a multi-faceted food destination; kingandgodfree.com

Young and Jackson This iconic pub opened in 1861 as the Princes Bridge Hotel; youngandjacksons.com.au

Myer Sidney Myer’s retail empire began in Bendigo in 1900, and expanded to Melbourne a decade later; myer.com.au

The Windsor Melbourne’s only remaining grand Victorian-era hotel opened in 1883; thehotelwindsor.com.au

Klepner’s Established in Vienna in 1889, this jewellery business relocated to Melbourne in 1938; klepners.com.au

Captain Melville The bluestone and wide verandahs of this 1853 pub, originally called Mac’s Hotel, are a rare sight in the CBD; captainmelville.com.au

Monarch Cakes Carlton’s Monaco cake shop opened in 1931, three years before being reborn in its current St Kilda location; monarchcakes.com.au

Coles The supermarket chain began in 1914 when G.J. Coles opened his first shop in Collingwood; coles.com.au

Paint ’n Powder This feminine boutique opened in 1969 in Australia’s oldest shopping arcade: the 1870 Royal Arcade; paintandpowder.com.au