Uniquely Melbourne: Alternative Carlton

Carlton is one of Melbourne's most treasured suburbs. On the fringe of the CBD, it is the city's Italian quarter but is so much more than that. Settled by the Jewish community in the early twentieth century, discovered by Melbourne's bohemians and uni students in the sixties and seventies and treasured by the masses for his pizza, gelato and macchiato, the suburb's foodie headquarters is Lygon Street.

While Carlton is long gentrified, it continues to provide rich atmosphere, authentic Italian fare and shades of its older, scruffier self.

The council has ensured that Lygon street retains its essential character and the high-rise public housing, students from nearby Melbourne University and strong Italian presence keep the street buzzy and lively. The Nova Cinema in the plaza and the iconic Readings bookstore ensure a constant stream of hipsters and progressives.

So, do Carlton and more specifically Lygon Street retain some of the excitement of the sixties, seventies and eighties? The answer is yes, but you have to look for it. I went in search of old Carlton and unfortunately the battery of my camera died, while some of my photography efforts veered towards the abstract! Where was my beginners' luck when I really needed it?

But fear not, your intrepid reporter has managed to supplement her own pics with those provided by kind vendors.

And I promise to return and take some photos of the lovely architectural details that adorn the stores of Lygon and surrounding streets.

First stop: the famous Tiamo at 303 Lygon Street, a cafe and restaurant that has been providing authentic Italian fare and oozing bohemian credibility since the year dot. I used to come here for mushroom tagliatelle as an undergrad at Melbourne uni and the decor is still reassuringly the same.

On my latest visit I found sitting at the front counter the distinguished gent above. He is Bibi Succi, the owner of Tiamo, which he purchased in 1977 when Carlton was the centre of Melbourne's counterculture. He now co-owns the cafe with Giancarlo Massini, below. Giancarlo is pictured in Tiamo 2, Tiamo's sister restaurant next door, with Grace Cacopardo (left) and his niece Teresa Tron, who conduct cooking and serving duties.

This is Tiamo's interior, complete with flyers and posters on the wall and the timeless tables and chairs that I remember from uni days. My pic's not the best, but it has an artistic blurriness:

This is a clearer view of the interior:

Next door to Tiamo 2 is Readings bookstore, a Carlton icon. I still remember the original, much smaller store, which was over the road at 366 Lygon Street. On Sunday afternoons Readings is a place to linger, browse and jostle the many customers soaking up the atmosphere. Nowadays Readings also has stores in St Kilda, Malvern, Hawthorn, the State Library and the Brain Centre.

On 10 August (this Saturday), Readings is celebrating National Bookshop Day, with all-day events at the Carlton, St Kilda, Malvern and Hawthorn stores. The store has a long tradition of philanthropy, with 10 per cent of profits going to the Readings Foundation each year, and crucial funds are also raised from individual donations by Readings customers. The Foundation supports initiatives that further the development of literacy, community work and the arts.

Photo: David Collopy
Just up the road, tucked away in a hallway at the end of Jimmy Watson's pub on Lygon Street, is Hobo clothing. As owner Anna speculates, this may be the smallest store in Australia and is a fantastic use of space. Hobo sells an eclectic combination of vintage and secondhand designer gear. The store has been operating in Hawthorn for 15 years and this new branch brings a touch of modern bohemia to Carlton.

Not far away, on the corner of Drummond and Elgin streets, is Cafe Lua. It's a relaxed hangout with the retro chrome-and-vinyl kitchen chairs and tables so beloved of alternative types since the early eighties. It's a light-filled place with a laidback feel.

Behind these coffee sippers at Lua is the exterior of Lygon Court, the site of the old Pram Factory, which housed a bohemian theatre troupe in the seventies:

On the other side of the road, at 194 Elgin Street, we find Make, which sells objects from around the globe that combine strong design with aesthetic appeal, many with green credentials. The light-filled showrooms beautifully showcase the design objects:

Further east, at 134-136 Elgin Street, is Yooralla op shop, a Carlton institution. Selling a range of pre-loved clothing, books, household goods, jewellery and other items, its profits fund Yooralla's work supporting people with disability. The shop also provides vital employment training for people with disability.

Retracing our steps down Lygon Street towards the city, we find the treasure trove of the Poppy Shop at 283 Lygon Street. It's a reminder of the variety of retail stores that were available before Melbourne store rents skyrocketed.

This small store is packed with imaginative toys, puzzles and games from around the world. Owner Pat Knox, who has been with the store since 1967, once sold secondhand furniture but changed the store's direction to gifts in 1972. You won't find chain store toys here, but diverse, original items like felt bags from Tibetan refugees, fabric squares from Japan, Kenyan knitted animals, puzzles from Belgium, dolls from Spain, and Russian babushkas.

Continuing down Lygon Street towards the city, we come to Borsari Cycles at 193 Lygon, another Carlton institution.

Nino 'Cavalier' Borsari had already triumphed over severe childhood poverty to become Italy's top professional cyclist and an Olympic gold medal winner before opening up his first bike shop on the corner of Lygon and Grattan streets in 1941. As well as doing cycle repairs, Nino operated as a secondhand dealer. The Borsari name can still be seen on this corner:

His business soon expanded and in 1961 it moved three doors down, to its present location. Borsari has sold thousands of bikes over the years and the current owner, Fabian, provides cycling advice to many satisfied customers.

That ends our visit today, but I will be back, camera in hand, to snap the historic architecture and street scenes of this inner city treasure trove.

Until next time!

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