She won't last a week
Guest blogger: Toni Risson, co-curator of the Meet me at the Paragon exhibition
"She won’t last a week," said Peter when she turned up for work that first day. It was 1939 and 15-year-old Gwen Mullins had secured a job as typist and cashier at the recently refurbished Christie’s Café at 217 Queen Street. Peter could not have been more wrong. Gwen worked at Christie’s until it closed on the Australia Day weekend of 1976.
Forty-four years later, just before Australia Day this year, Gwen visited the State Library’s Greek cafe exhibition Meet me at the Paragon, where a photograph of Christie’s fills an entire wall. The shop was the dream of Christos Stahtoures, who came to Australia in 1918 at the age of eighteen. Christos’ daughter Sister Elvera Sesta accompanied Gwen on this historic visit.
Christos, or Christie as he was known in Brisbane, owned two shops in Queen Street. He acquired the second business, a milk bar at 217 Queen Street, in the early 1930s. In 1933 he went to Chios, his family’s island homeland, to enter into an arranged marriage. Christie was now 33 and Eugenia was 19. In 1937 the couple bought the building at 217-19 Queen Street, took out a mortgage, and embarked upon a £20,000 makeover. The now legendary Christie’s reopened for business in February 1938.
The photograph in the exhibition, which was taken around this time, records Christie and his brother Peter, immaculate in white jackets, behind glass counters stocked with chocolates, boiled sweets and toffees, cakes, buns, pastries, pies, sausage rolls and Cornish pasties—all made exclusively in the basement factory of the other shop at 352 Queen Street. Gwen identifies May Molineau as the waitress on the left of the unusual island milk bar and Lil Huggett on the right. This information has not hitherto been recorded anywhere else. I guess Gwen noted those names on a weekly basis, perhaps for years, when she did the wages.
Sister Elvera was a young child with long curls when American servicemen frequented the café during the war years. These men were drawn to Greek cafes because they reminded them of home, and many would have been missing their own little girls. This Shirley Temple lookalike remembers the generosity of these men: "I got a lot of money." This is a common story when "café kids" remember wartime years in their parents’ shops.
Elvera and Gwen, now in her mid-90s, enjoyed reliving the Greek café story at Meet me at the Paragon, as have so many families, employees and customers. The exhibition closes 15 March.
Women in Greek Cafés - special event on 10 March 2020
In recognition of International Women's Day this year, Women in Greek Cafés explores the unsung lives of many Greek migrant women. These women spent many hours behind the café counter, either cooking, cleaning, taking care of finances, taking care of the children and, often, all the above. This panel discussion brings together the three women whose lives were shaped in the café of the early 20th century - they were the wives, mothers, daughters, of Greek Café proprietors, and in some instances, business owners themselves. Free admission. Bookings are essential.
Further reading from Toni Risson