‘Locals love us’: country Australia’s general stores come into their own amid Covid

The general store was the focal point of a country town – the hub. The place you went to grab a few essentials, only to leave 20 minutes later having run into half of the town’s population.

A trip there was a social outing but not a quick one.

Today the Binalong store, an hour outside Canberra, is still trading 90 years after it opened. It was once called the White Rose Cafe, established by Kon and Maria Kosseris and servicing the town of 543 at the last census. Their son Bill continues to keep the doors open seven days a week, 12 hours a day.

The windows are still lined with fresh fruit and vegetables. Every condiment still adorns the wooden shelving. Fresh bread is delivered daily, along with the local papers. Pingpong balls are still stacked in the glass cases and the ubiquitous python snake lolly tub is front and centre for the children who have just hopped off the school bus.

While times have changed the memories remain for those in and around Binalong, not least for Bill, who grew up in the store and who continues to stand behind its counter during a worldwide pandemic.

In the age of Covid-19, where people’s movements have been limited to a 5km radius and the local duopoly supermarket is frequently listed as an exposure site, general stores have come into their own.

A longtime Binalong resident, Christine Saunders, says the town couldn’t do without Bill, nor without his parents before him.

“On Sunday night I can ring up Bill and say I need some cream, can you leave it on the step? Which he always does for me.”

Christine says when the previous Binalong store shut down, the Kosseris family stepped into the breach and they have been there ever since. “It is just perfect for this town … you don’t get this service anywhere else.”

Bill remembers a much busier town historically. “There was a lot of people in and around Binalong, a lot of our customers were shearers and worked on the railway. It was a busy place.”

The White Rose Cafe cashed cheques, with funds appearing in accounts immediately, unlike the banks who told clients the funds would be cleared within three days.

Binalong store owner Bill Kosseris prepares a $1 bag of lollies for Ian
Binalong store owner Bill Kosseris prepares a $1 bag of lollies for Ian. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

“During shearing season, hundreds of cheques worth hundreds of pounds were cashed,” Christine says. “The shearers relied on the cash being available immediately, not in three days or even a week.

“Bill always keeps a can of petrol out the back in case someone comes off the highway needing fuel in the event of the garage being shut … it just shows how extremely thoughtful he is.”

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Today, in modern rural and regional Australia, the general store is increasingly morphing into cafes, providing strong coffees and selected boutique goods.

Stores like the Stones Throw cafe, the Marsden Street General and the Long Track Pantry, all in NSW, are examples of businesses that have adapted their traditional services to accommodate and thrive in today’s society.

What was once a trip to the general store to collect milk and the papers has changed to buying barista-made coffee, sourdough, gifts, homewares and homemade takeaway meals, the equivalent to city restaurant takeaway.

The pythons container at the Binalong store
The pythons container at the Binalong store. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Katie Murray, owner of the Stones Throw cafe in Walgett operates a one-stop shop to service the modern country customer. Katie opened the shop in 2014, which coincided with a tough and relentless drought. From the early day, her store has continued to grow and expand.

In 2019 opportunity arose for Katie to move next door into a bigger space. Capitalising on the demand, she installed a commercial kitchen, which enabled her to offer a full-range menu.

The bigger space also allowed Katie to increase her stock of gifts, homewares, clothing ranges and flowers – some inspiration was taken from her mother, who owned retail stores in Griffith and Temora in southern NSW.

“Another opportunity of running a business in a small town, where there isn’t that much on offer, is that I can offer everything,” she says. “I kind of get really greedy like that and want to have everything.”

Looking to the near future, Katie and her team have introduced takeaway frozen meals, which she hopes will be up and running in time for the harvest.

Affected by drought, and by Covid-19 lockdowns in Walgett, Katie says there is always a silver lining.

“We are lucky we have a window [so] our customers can order through and we have seen our online sales step up, as we have had more time to focus on social media and process online sales.”

There are no online sales for Bill but he survives as a small business without a website or a modern-day debt.

“The locals love us – they support us but technically, if I had to pay off debts, it would be tough to survive.”


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