GALLERY: Time to say goodbye ... staff reflect on Orange's department store

FAREWELL: Former staff Patty Clarke, Merv Wilkie, Anne Brakenridge and Carol Thornberry at the iconic Summer Street store. Photo: JUDE KEOGH
FAREWELL: Former staff Patty Clarke, Merv Wilkie, Anne Brakenridge and Carol Thornberry at the iconic Summer Street store. Photo: JUDE KEOGH

AS the guns of war blazed over Europe and Australian forces were increasingly involved, a young Pattie Clarke arrived for her first day of work at the big department store in Summer Street.

“I started in crockery outside Mr Brown’s (the manager) office. It was Western Stores then. I was 16.”

As World War II worsened she watched the number of young men on staff decrease for war duty, first replaced by older men and later there were more women on staff.

Mrs Clarke went on to work for 48 years at Western Stores and later Myer in a variety of roles before retiring in 1989.

This week she joined two other former workers Merv Wilkie and Carol Thornberry, plus current staff member Anne Brakenridge, in the soon-to-close building to reminisce and reflect on Orange’s favourite store.

“I loved my work,” Mrs Clarke said.

“The people who worked then knew their budget and you knew what you had to do to make that budget.”

Mr Wilkie joined Western Stores two years later, in 1943, at just 14.

“I joined the furniture section. It was a sad point, I was to be an accountant.”

But with war restrictions on everything, including where people worked, he was soon learning how to sell floor coverings.

Mr Wilkie said Western Stores sold far more agricultural products than modern department stores do, with everything from machinery to farm produce.

“You used to be able to buy anything, if it was available, from a needle to a stack of hay.”

His jobs included packing potatoes into brown paper bags and filling bottles with spirits.

“They used to bottle their own methylated spirits and turps. I’d get sent down to bottle and label when they ran short,” he said.

Mr Wilkie remembers the coming of the escalator, a modernisation plan to lift the country store to the level of big city shops, in 1955.

“It was a major operation,” he said.

Crowds gathered for the opening ceremony and their first ride on the moving stairs.

Carol Thornberry joined the staff in 1960 and worked there until 1974.

“I worked in the office. The office was a pretty big concern in those days,” she said.

“We were very proud of our jobs. We were one big happy family as far as I was concerned.”

One of the most hectic weekends was in February 1966 when Australia changed its currency from pounds to dollars.

“We worked from 12 o’clock on the Saturday when the shop closed until nine on the Monday converting everything. All the accounts, which were numerous, all the lay-bys, the signs, had to be changed.

“It was a massive job. Saturday it was pounds, shillings and pence, Monday it was dollars and cents.”

She also remembers the funeral of long-time store manager Geoffrey Murray, who died aged 56 in 1968.

“His funeral went down Summer Street, as all funerals did in those days.

“We all stopped work and formed a guard of honour for him outside the front of the shop.”

Anne Brakenridge joined the store as a casual in 1981.

“I started in the smoke shop and I’d never had a smoke in my life,” she said.

Now she is counting down the days until her lengthy career comes to an end with the store closing on January 29.

We were very proud of our jobs. We were one big happy family as far as I was concerned.

Carol Thornberry

As a manager, she’ll be one of a handful who will stay on for a couple of weeks finalising everything.

“Back in the ’80s we only did five and a half days a week and now it’s a seven day-a-week business. It’s extremely different now.

“There were a lot more people back then, a lot more departments. It’s a lot different business.”

She remembers the first Boxing Day sale several years ago as one of the most hectic trading days she has seen.

“It was one of our biggest days. It was a whole new experience.”

But, while the memories are vivid there is a strong sense of loss for all these dedicated workers – and the many others over the years – at the closure of the store.

Mrs Brakenridge said it would be felt throughout the whole community.

“It’s very sad,” she said.

“It’s sad for the town, and it’s sad for the people around our town, the businesses that rely on us. I think Orange has gone backwards.

“It is a family-oriented business. Everyone here is so close and the community need to be thanked.”

The retired workers fear the loss of a department store will impact on Orange’s standing in NSW.

“I think the biggest loss if going to be in the quality,” Mr Wilkie said.

“It could reflect on some of the things that bring people here. People may now go to other places in preference,” he said.

CHANGING NAMES:

  • 1850s: first part of Dalton Brothers store opens in Summer Street
  • 1928: Sold to Western Stores and Edgleys
  • 1963: Western Stores takes over full ownership
  • 1975: Myer takes over
  • 1983: Grace Brothers takes control
  • 2004: Store reverts to Myer name
  • 2017: January 29 store to close