News / Business

Traders’ president sees better times ahead for shopping strip

The president of Sydney Road’s business association reflects on a tumultuous two years

“I just love that it’s so mixed, it’s got everything in it,” says Mary Gurry of the Sydney Road shopping strip.

Mark Phillips
Monday, July 12, 2021

THERE are few more passionate advocates for Sydney Road than Mary Gurry.

As the president of the Sydney Road Business Association, Ms Gurry is the cheerleader-in-chief for what is reputedly the longest continuous shopping strip in the Southern Hemisphere.

Although a relative newcomer compared to businesses that have called Sydney Road their home for decades, she takes enormous pride in the strip’s reputation.

“I just love that it’s so mixed, it’s got everything in it,” Ms Gurry says. “The fact that it will have the butcher, the barber, the bigger shops, little shops, the quirky shops, the handmade shops. There’s a lot of designers.

“It’s quirky, it’s different … It’s a fabulous mix and it’s not like any other shopping strip. You really can’t compare it to Chapel Street or Puckle Street or High Street.”

Centrestage Costumes, the business Ms Gurry runs with her son, Jimmy Smale, began 36 years old in Rathdowne Street, Carlton North. It moved from Lygon Street in Brunswick East to its current location at the corner of Sydney Road and Mitchell Street in 2017.

It’s a business built on a mantra of “madness, family and making people happy”.

Within one main room and a couple of smaller rooms is an Aladdin’s Cave packed to the rafters with hundreds of costumes, wigs, props, make up and accessories. Whether a client wants to dress up as Mickey Mouse, Marilyn Monroe or Marcel Marceau, Centrestage Costumes has them covered. Amid the standard Bananas In Pyjamas and Jack Sparrow costumes, are treasures such as an authentic 1970s US Astronaut’s helmet.

The costume shop grew out of a singing telegram business run by Ms Gurry and her late partner, Bill Smale, who was also an Elvis impersonator.

“We had quite a few costumes for that and I decided it was getting way too hard with singing telegrams when fat-o-grams and strip-o-grams and all that nasty stuff came out, so we switched to costume hire. That was in 1985.”

She was elected president of the Sydney Road Business Association at the end of 2019.

The association is a marketing and lobbying organisation made up of more than 500 businesses trading in the 2.5km stretch from Brunswick Road to Moreland Road (including Barkly Square). Membership is free for businesses within the strip and funding is derived from a Moreland Council rate levy.

First surveyed by Robert Hoddle in 1837, Sydney Road became the commercial spine of Brunswick in the late 19th century as Melbourne’s population boomed on the back of the Gold Rush. The road has weathered booms and busts since, undergoing a resurgence over the past couple of decades.

Retail makes up about 30% of the tenancies in the strip, with business services and food, drink and entertainment each making up about a quarter. About 4% of shops are formal wear.

Ms Gurry’s business is in the Moreland section of the road (the others are Jewell, Brunswick and Anstey).

She became active in the association during the 2019 fight over a Moreland Council proposal to trial the removal of on-street car parking along the southern section of Sydney Road to improve bicycle safety.

Traders’ opposition led the council to ditch the proposal that time but the future of on-street parking remains unresolved and continues to bitterly divide shop owners and bicycle users.

“Our main contention is it’s extremely hard to take home your wedding cake or your wedding dress on a bike,” Ms Gurry said. “There’s a lot of reasons that we need [on-street] car parks. Our customer base would just disappear [without them] and that goes for an awful lot of shops in Sydney Road.”

Just months into Ms Gurry’s presidency of the association, Sydney Road traders were hit by the biggest crisis any of them had seen. The two lockdowns in 2020 caused by the Covid-19 pandemic had a devastating effect of forcing the majority of business up and down the strip to close for months.

With no large events such as birthdays, weddings or corporate events allowed during the lockdowns, Ms Gurry’s costume business was in the same predicament. Even so, she knows there were plenty of other businesses in Sydney Road and its tributaries who suffered more than her.

But bad as the 2020 lockdowns were, she says the most recent two-week lockdown at the end of May caused by a handful of community transmissions was possibly worse for its impact on business confidence.

“God bless him my landlord rang up about three days into the whole thing and said ‘Can you pay 50%, Mary?, and I said ‘I certainly can’.

“But I heard an awful lot of terrible stories along Sydney Road of landlords who didn’t budge an inch or landlords who did budge or said ‘You can just pay it back later’. Where are they going to get the later money from? There’s a lot of really sad stories.

“We were closed for 217 days [in 2020], and this year we were just getting up. That last two-week lockdown would have been our biggest hiring weekend since 2019, so that was pretty hard to take because the confidence will take months to get back up. It took months to get to that and now it all just fell into pieces.”

Mary Gurry with a friend inside her Sydney Road shop.

Vacancies in the shopping strip shot up to almost one-in-five during the lockdowns, but are now back down to about half of that. While there is no doubt that softer rents may have led to increased tenancies, Ms Gurry has another theory.

“There’s been an enormous number of new shops in Sydney Road since Covid. It’s amazing, inspiring…. I think quite a few of these new shops that have popped up are people who were in an office job who have always dreamed of doing their own business and during lockdown planned it.”

Ms Gurry says her enjoyment of the costume business is undiminished and she expects Jimmy will eventually take over the business on his own.

“He was born into it. The business is older than him and he’s 30 now. The poor boy had to live with 50 Santa suits stored in his bedroom as a child.”

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