By Vasilis Vasilas
Local shopping strips provided people with a very different style of shopping; along suburb’s main roads would be located all the shops and businesses people wanted to purchase whatever they wanted. Bakeries, delicatessens, butchers, barbers and hairdressers, boutiques and tailors… they were all found along a shopping strip. Yet, the construction of shopping centres brought convenience and a greater variety of shops in the one location, and this greatly impacted some of the smaller shopping strips.
Compounding this pressure on local small shops was also the rise of specific megastores whether they were pharmaceutical or hardware or travel or gardening, as bulk buying and supposed cheaper prices further narrowed their profit margins.
Yet, there are some local shops and businesses which have withstood all the enormous pressures and continued to operate and provide locals with their products and services. One of the most admirable surviving small shops and businesses is undoubtedly Botany Timber and Hardware which is run by Michalis Konitsas; with an enormous shopping centre and a hardware megastore only a few kilometres away, he is still there bucking any trend- with his expertise, skills and knowledge.
Having grown up in a family of carpenters and migrating to Australia in 1956, Michalis found work in a metal workshop but would do carpentry work on weekends. A turning point was when he was visiting Sydney city and he noticed the famous Yiannopoulos’ audio-visual shop being demolished and he curiously went in and asked for work. From 1959, he worked as a shop-fitter and he has lost count how many Greek-run shops he fitted, ‘It was great timing as more and more Greeks were buying shops in Sydney, and many of them wanted to renovate and upgrade their shops with the latest designs and appliances. For shopfitters, it was a boom time.’
In 1983, an opportunity arose to buy ‘Downs Hardware’ on Botany Road, Botany, and Konitsas family expanded the building to stock more products. At the time, Botany was full of factories and workshops, so Michael and his late-wife, Poppy, were busy balancing local and drop-in customers, and these factories/workshops. Over the years, however, Botany’s residential area has grown at the expense of industry and so many factories/ workshops have subsequently relocated.
For Botany Timber and Hardware’s success over the years, Michalis pays great tribute to his late-wife, Poppy, ‘ Once the children their school age, Poppy would work with me to our shops. I had been in Australia sixteen years before she migrated here (in 1972), but she learnt to speak, read and write English a lot quicker than me. I still struggle with it (laughs)! Poppy was very bright and picked up on things very quickly. She managed so many things in the shop; once she passed away, I had to learn. Some things I did not continue; for example, Poppy mixed all the paints and I no longer provide this service. She was always part of the shop; her absence is felt every day.’
With a massive shopping centre and a hardware megastore only a few kilometers away, Michalis does not seem phased by it all, ‘With over sixty years’ experience with tools and hardware goods, I try to help my customers as much I can. Do you think staff at the hardware megastores know the difference between the metric and imperial systems? We have been around for such a long time that the shop has been recommended to listeners of radio programs. I have gotten so many customers who come into the shop and say, ‘I had on the radio that if I could not find something in the hardware megastores, I should go to Botany Hardware.’
One of Botany Timber and Hardware’s appeals is the retro look- it is an old-style hardware shop with aisles packed with stock; to everyone’s surprise, Michalis seems to know where everything is.
Asked how long he will continue operating the business, Michalis is realistic, ‘I have worked this shop for over thirty-five years and seen all the changes. When all the factories in the area shut down, our shop lost so much business. I accepted these changes and just kept going. How long will I continue working? As long as I can; if I can stand and move around, then I can come to the shop and work. Admittedly, I operate the shop with flexible hours; as I live so close to the shop, if I am running a little late in the morning, so be it. I have so many very elderly customers; they may be ninety years old but they still drive and are very independent. I will eventually shut the shop when I am unable to do what I do; when that times does come, I will just accept it.’