Northampton is a little town 52km north of Geraldton in Western Australia. The area was first settled in 1848 and some of the historic buildings remain.
On a recent visit, I was pleased to see that there was still a general store in the old building that used to be occupied by J. M. Williams & Co. Drapery. The last time I’d visited the shop in 2001 I’d been fascinated by its rich history and entertained by the Williams’ family’s many stories.
Built in the early 1900s, the store was originally three shops – a general store, a saddler and a tobacconist, barber and billiard room. Eventually, it became one big shop and was known as Stokes’ until 1949 when the Williams family took it over as a drapery.
Max Williams, who was the oldest of four children and born and bred in Northampton, bought the shop when he was 21. The shop was a family affair as his wife (Helen), two sisters (Maureen and Dawn) and sister-in-law (Cecily) also worked in the shop. When I visited they sold clothing, work clothes, bedding, shoes, sewing materials and jewellery, but in the past they’d also stocked hats, toys, crockery, brill cream and groceries.
The customers were so familiar with the staff at the drapery that they assumed they knew every little detail about their family lives. Once, Max got a phone call from a woman who wanted to buy a pair of pyjamas for her husband to match the carpet.
“Why? Do you put him under the bed?” asked Max.
The irony was that none of the staff had ever been into the woman’s house.
Often people would drop in to the shop and say, “I want a pair of slippers for Tom.” Sometimes they’d bring a piece of string which they’d measured the person’s feet with, but usually they would just expect the staff to know the size of Tom’s feet.
An Aboriginal man used to use the shop as a bank. “He’d come into the shop and borrow money off Max to last him till the next pension day,” said Dawn. One day Max’s son was working in the shop and refused to lend him the money.
“But your dad’s the only man in Northampton I can trust to borrow off,” the man said indignantly.
“You only come in when you want to borrow money, you never buy anything,” said Max’s son.
“Alright,” said the man, “I’ll have a hat.” He chose a $100 Akubra and then asked if he could have it on credit!
Then there was the woman who asked for 40 Modess (a brand of sanitary pad). “I thought she wanted forty packets and must have been running a harem,” said Max, “but all she wanted was two packs of twenty pads.”
Cecily remembered how there used to be a big ball every week at Kings Hall (which is now a park). “Just after the war we could only get one type of fabric, so all the women at the ball were dressed in the same material,” she laughed.
Few changes were made to the shop during the Williams’ family’s custodianship, attracting people from all over the world looking for nostalgia. There was even a handle-operated till (handy in power cuts!) which was converted from pounds, shillings and pence in 1963 and would only register up to $99. It was so delicate that the staff couldn’t get anyone to service it and had to ink it up themselves.
The shop was an institution in the town and a way of life for the family. But in 2003, after 54 years, they sold the business and finally retired. The catalyst for their decision was the introduction of the GST.
The shop is now called the Northampton Family Store and sells clothing, manchester, footwear, hats, haberdashery, wool, toys, and gifts. The store has been kept in its original style with wooden counters and floor boards, tin ceilings and … yes, the handle-operated till is still there!