The Fancelli sisters' store

The Fancelli sisters have been forced to give up the Rhine Castle tea rooms and museum, their home of many years. I described a while back how they survived mainly by taking in paying visitors, but a new Council ordinance put an end to all that. In fact, by the time I reported on their castle, the move had already been forced upon them. I hesitated to report their problems then, but they have sprung back, and I can report both their calamity and how they got over it.

They sold up and moved out, not without regret. Still, they took much of their "collections" with them, shuttling back and forth in their elderly Studebaker between the castle and their new home and base of operations, a corner shop quite close to where I live.

There was a time when Australians always shopped at "the corner shop", a small store which carried most of the main household needs, situated in walking distance of people's homes. Cars were rare, refrigeration was little more than an ice box, and many foods had to be bought fresh each day. After World War II, about the time the Fancelli sisters' Studebaker crossed the Pacific, Australians started to acquire cars. That was when the writing went up on the wall for the corner shop.

A few of the shops survived, if they were in key locations: near a park, close to factories, or opposite a school, for example. The sisters have found such a little store, across a quiet street from a sheltered park at the end of a Sydney harbour backwater. There is a stream of locals driving past the door each afternoon to buy bread and milk, and on weekend afternoons, picnic groups besiege them all day for ice creams and drinks. Each morning, the sister on duty can sit serenely enthroned in the shop window, listening to music, drinking tea, reading, and serving the occasional customer.

That occasional visitor needs a strong stomach for their music and a cast-iron stomach for their tea. Those who qualify may sit at one of the free tables, but you need either eclectic musical tastes, or a foreknowledge of which sister is "on" that day. One certainty is that the music will be loud, and superbly reproduced, but it can vary greatly, unlike the industrial-strength tea.

The taller Miss Fancelli (as I have mentioned before, nobody seems to know their names, other than "Miss Fancelli") has austere tastes in music, favouring opera and vocal music above all else. She sings along with most of the operas and adds a new dimension to what she calls her "light relief", the CD of "The Three Tenors".

Her voice was probably once a rich contralto, but now her tannin-impregnated larynx usually gives a close approximation to a tenor in need of minor repairs (a rebore, perhaps?). The taller Miss Fancelli draws in the "blue-rinse set", women of past retirement age, and she is now taking names for a Wednesday matinee opera theatre party.

The shorter Miss Fancelli ranges across the full range of 20th century music, with a strong Australian bias. Her collection includes John Cage, Arnold Schonberg, several Australian groups favoured by moshers (if this means nothing, take it to mean "heavy metal"), the aboriginal rock band Yothu Yindi, and the fusion groups Gondwanaland and Sirocco. She also favours several well-known avant garde Australian composers, all of whom she claims as former lovers. Her current following is younger, but equally loyal. I cannot, however, speak of her lovers.

Saturday and Sunday mornings are special. The sisters both work, and offer us their version of a compromise: full-strength Romantic pops. "Nothing heavier than Mendelssohn, nothing lighter than Tchaikovsky" is their motto, and it seems to work well. They are both kept flat out serving hot scones and their potent tea (though the taller sister is now teaching herself to brew equally dangerous coffee!!).

Beyond this, their shop is still a shop, selling staple foodstuffs to the locals, but being the Fancellis, they have already started to acquire a wider range of stock. If a customer asks for something they do not carry, the sisters will buy some in. If they need something themselves, they order a wholesale consignment, then sell the rest at retail rates. The shorter Miss Fancelli delights in attending auction sales, and this has also added many novelties. She tells me she is currently looking for an espresso machine for her sister.

Already they have been forced to add new shelves, right up to the ceiling on all the spare walls to carry such items as a range of wallpaper oddments, bath toys, stationery, Willow-pattern china, and a range of brass and steel screws. The second-hand bookshelf has been relocated three times, ending up as a rummage bin near the door.

Kitschy "scene in a snowstorm" globes are doing very well, especially the tasteful one with two dolphins on a seesaw and "Greetings from the Gold Coast" in luminous gold letters. The snow flakes also glow in the dark, and the globes have been given a special shelf of their own "just in case they're radioactive, dear". The ceiling has sprouted hooks from which some of their lighter and bulkier stock items dangle.

At the back of the shop, the garage that contains their venerable Studebaker, is also home to a load of bagged sand and cement, pool chemicals, scented candles, dog food, home brew beer kits and more, including a huge pile of the sisters' own brand of tomato sauce (for Americans, that is ketchup), sealed into any sort of recycled glass container they can gather in. Each Friday, their car can be seen cruising the streets, ahead of the recycling truck, as the sisters maintain their supplies. Beside the garage is the greenhouse where they grow their "secret herbs" for the sauce.

I am happy to report that they have not only brought their collection of historic vacuum cleaners with them from the Rhine Castle, but they have developed a profitable sideline in selling new ones, and several are on display. On the footpath out front, they have set up a table with seedlings in punnets and tubes. The taller Miss Fancelli offers punnets of herbs and annuals, the shorter Miss Fancelli germinates the seeds of hard-to-grow Australian native plants.

One small problem with their diversification is that no single part of their business is totally viable. During the day, they may sell three sandwiches, which means they break into a loaf of sliced bread, and at the end of the day, they still have most of a loaf left over.

When the last customers of the day come seeking bread, the eccentric sisters will offer them a part- loaf at discount prices. It says a lot for the locals that this has now become accepted, although their attempts to dispose of parts of bottles of milk are still being resisted. But whatever else you say about them, the sisters have managed to turn the clock back to the days when a corner store would and could sell almost anything. For that alone, we love them.

For an introduction tot the Fancelli sisters and their Museum, click on more about the Fancelli sisters.

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