BEECHWORTH: The first thing we noticed about the Main Street of this north-east Victoria town this month was the cute and apparently faithfully preserved historic shop fronts in the main shopping precinct of Ford and Camp Streets.
The second thing was that unlike many other tourist towns we’ve visited over the years, Beechworth shops are actually worth stopping at and walking into. The tired imported trinkets we’d seen and rejected in many other places — pejoratively known as tourist traps — were absent, and replaced here by delicate handmade local items, or gorgeous imported fabrics, fashions and furniture which made the three-hour journey from Melbourne well worth the effort.
That was a welcome relief. As was the pet ferret being led up Ford Street by the ageing and friendly gent.
To us shopping scholars, however, there was a third interesting thing in one section of town. The shop signs were different. Normally shops have prominent name signs out front — on the footpath and on the windows as well as on the real estate (the buildings themselves) — but this is more often not the case here, especially along the south side of Ford Steet, where the odd numbers are ranged.
The coffee shop on the main roundabout, for instance, opposite the Post Office, looked completely unnamed to us from the outside. I took enough pictures to check afterwards and it’s true enough. It didn’t seem to be hurting business, though, because there was a tiny sign in the window alerting passers-by that a certain brand of coffee, Merlo, was on sale inside. That brand comes from our hometown of Brisbane and we found ourselves sucked into the shop by a maelstrom of memories. “Do you really have Merlo coffee?” we asked the man behind the counter. “We do indeed,” he replied with a smile. “It’s what brought us into the shop,” I told him. “Ah, you’re from Brisbane,” he said. Now that’s what I call clever. Merlo coffee has a good reputation anywhere and will probably get most drinkers through the door. But as a name brand in a foreign country like Victoria, it will definitely lure the Queensland mob in!
We continued walking uphill along the odd side of Ford Street, photographing and shopping and the sign trend continued. There were signs on the buildings visible from across the street, but few visible right there on the footpath. The grocery store, then Hotch Potch the kitchen shop, and Frances Pilley the very classy giftware shop … Same.
Big change at the top of the hill opposite the church, appropriately on the corner of Church Street. There we found the Beechworth Honey Experience, which had plenty of signs. But this is an amazing shop altogether … A truly experiential retailer. You can taste, touch, hear, examine and watch bees and bee products until the cows come home. Pip bought three different varieties of flavoured honey, a honey and ginger sparkling drink and a honey hand lotion. And John — perpetually the youngest child — stood mesmerised by the exposed working bee hive, with the little buggers crawling all over their mates, then buzzing up the clear Perspex pipe to freedom and back. And in memory of our scientific ancestor Keith, John peered down microscopes at bee eyes, bee wings and hairy bee legs!
The north side of the street (even numbers) told a slightly different story. Here there were more signs — including sandwich boards and hanging from the awnings overhead — but still strangely diffident. In one case, at The Growing Suitcase, the sign was painted on the door but then casually obscured by some wonderful fashions owner Rob Cowell had hung there for display. Lovely shop, very French.
Nearby I also loved the Beechworth Boudoir, piled high with frilly, lacy and other bedroom delights, including a complete bedroom along the back wall.
Around Camp Street we found where all the signs had gone. Here there was a surfeit of signs, more than you could poke a stick at. Especially cluttered was the Beechworth Sweet Company, which was practically covered in signs at the front, including instructions on how and where to enter and exit the shop. Unsubstantiated guess: but it looks like they’ve had some problems with sticky fingered customers here … now there’s a surprise. Probably a function of the tender age of the majority of shoppers … That might account for the number of signs inside about watching small children and paying for broken delicate goods.
Across the street at the news agency, there’s a different kind of sign … suggesting loyalty and provenance … something journalists of the 21st century crave and need now perhaps more than anything else.