‘Locals love us’: General stores across Australia take on new meaning amid Covid | Rural australia
The general store was the focal point of a country town – the hub. The place where you picked up some essentials, only to leave 20 minutes later after meeting half of the city’s population.
A trip there was a social outing, but not a quick one.
Today, the Binalong store, one hour from Canberra, is still in business 90 years after it opened. It was once called the White Rose Cafe, created by Kon and Maria Kosseris and serving the city from 543 to the last census. Their son Bill continues to keep the doors open seven days a week, 12 hours a day.
The windows are always lined with fresh fruits and vegetables. Each condiment still adorns the wooden shelves. Fresh bread is delivered daily, as are local newspapers. Ping-pong balls are always stacked in the display cases, and the ubiquitous python snake lollipop tray is in the foreground for the kids who just got off the school bus.
Although times have changed, memories remain for those of Binalong and the surrounding area, especially for Bill, who grew up in the store and continues to stand behind his counter during a global pandemic.
In the age of Covid-19, where movement of people has been limited to a radius of 5 km and where the local duopoly supermarket is frequently listed as an exhibition site, general stores have taken on their full scale.
Longtime Binalong resident Christine Saunders says the city couldn’t be without Bill, nor without his parents before him.
“Sunday night I can call Bill and tell him I need the cream, can you leave him on the step?” What he always does for me.
Christine says that when the previous store in Binalong closed, the Kosseris family stepped in and have been there ever since. “It’s just perfect for this city… you don’t get this service anywhere else.
Bill remembers a city that was much busier historically. “There were a lot of people in and around Binalong, many of our customers were shearers and worked on the railroad. It was a busy place.
The White Rose Cafe cashed the checks with the funds appearing in the accounts immediately, unlike the banks which told customers the funds would clear within three days.
“During the mowing season, hundreds of checks worth several hundred pounds were cashed,” explains Christine. “The shearers were counting on the immediate availability of money, not in three days or even a week.
“Bill always keeps a can of gasoline in the back in case someone comes off the freeway needing fuel if the garage is closed… it shows how extremely caring he is.”
Today in modern rural and regional Australia, the general store is increasingly transformed into cafes, offering strong coffees and select boutique products.
Stores like the Stones Throw Cafe, Marsden Street General and the Long Track Pantry, all located in New South Wales, are examples of businesses that have adapted their traditional services to fit and thrive in the society of today.
What was once a trip to the general store to collect milk and papers has now become the purchase of coffee, sourdough, gifts, housewares, and homemade takeout, the equivalent of takeout from ‘a restaurant in town.
Katie Murray, owner of Stones Throw Cafe in Walgett, operates a one-stop shop to serve the modern country customer. Katie opened the store in 2014, which coincided with a harsh and relentless drought. From the start, his store has continued to grow and expand.
In 2019, the opportunity presented itself to Katie to move into a larger space next door. Capitalizing on demand, it installed a commercial kitchen, which allowed it to offer a full menu.
The larger space also allowed Katie to increase her inventory of gifts, housewares, clothing lines and flowers – some inspiration was taken from her mother, who owned retail stores in Griffith and Temora in southern New South Wales.
“Another opportunity to run a business in a small town, where there isn’t much to offer, is that I can offer it all,” she says. “I get really greedy like this and want to have it all.”
In the near future, Katie and her team have introduced frozen take-out meals, which she hopes will be up and running in time for harvest.
Affected by the drought and the Covid-19 lockdowns in Walgett, Katie says there is still a silver lining.
“We are lucky to have a window [so] our customers can order and we have seen our online sales ramp up as we have had more time to focus on social media and process online sales.
There is no online selling for Bill, but he survives as a small business with no website and modern debt.
“The locals love us – they support us but technically, if I had to pay off debts, it would be difficult to survive. “