Growing up in Shepp East

Shepp East General Store

It’s not so much the layout of the shop that looms large in my mind, but how we operated (or not) within it.

The Shepp East General Store was very much a family concern. Us three boys (Older brother, then 2 years to me, then younger brother one year behind me) were rostered on after school, Saturdays and Sundays. I recall my starting wage/salary/pocket money was 4 shillings, becoming 40 cents an hour after February 1966. After school, shifts were from the bus drop soon after 4 until 6 when the shop shut. Shifts on Saturday or Sunday mornings were usually from opening at 8 until 10 or ten until closing at 1. The shorter earlier shift was compensation for the lost weekend sleep-in.

Because we operated a sub-newsagency, we were obliged to open for the afternoon paper, which meant that on weekends there was a spilt shift. The shop closed at 1 when footy, netball or cricket took people down to the local sports grounds at Central Park. We re-opened from 5 to 7 so people would come in for the Herald and a last chance at petrol, groceries, soft drink or ice-creams.

Dad was for many years Secretary of the Footy Club and mum had a swag of brothers playing for the Shepp East Tigers in the KDFL – the Kyabram and District Football League –  or the Shepp East Bombers when they joined the Ovens and Murray League which already had Tigers. This meant that they were always out and about in the community each weekend afternoon.

With younger Brother and me having non-existent football careers, we were to open the shop for the evening shift but were off the leash between 1 and 5. This often meant that we would pedal our bikes down to the Main Eastern Channel and pester the wildlife. This was all in the name of science of course as we would throw rocks at a grebe or cormorant and time how long we could keep them underwater or for what distance and at what speed they could swim to get away from us.

We’d jump the fence at the Siphon where the channel went under the Broken River and get up to more mischief there. There might be an illegal drum net to pull out of the river and see if we could pinch a fish, some bird nests to find or perhaps an agglomeration of spitfire grubs to lay waste. Now obviously these activities were totally absorbing and too often, it would be the lengthening shadows, particularly in the footy season, that would remind us we needed to be elsewhere. We’d race back, jump over the fences to our bikes and pedal furiously for the mile or so ride back to the shop.

There’d usually be 5 or 6 cars waiting with occupants none-too-pleased at being kept waiting. “Geez, young Hunty, wait’ll your parents hear about this”, they’d invariably say. I think our parents must have heard about it as there were enough irate people to tell on us. But as we were repeat offenders, I cannot recall any sanction strong enough to change our behaviour.

In fact, if the saying ‘spare the rod and you spoil the child’ was to have any credence, we’d have to have been the most spoilt children there were. Dad in the height of exasperation might exclaim “By yumpin’ yiminy (whatever yumpin is and whoever yiminy was), keep doing that and I’ll kick you into the middle of next week” or “I’ll whack you so hard you won’t sit down for a month of Sundays”. Neither threat was ever carried out. I never did get a premature look at the middle of next week and I sat comfortably on Sundays and all other days of the week.

The times I was a conscientious shop assistant were in very large part extremely enjoyable. I was never going to escape my upbringing, both parents were dab hands at a chat and I found an endless stream of people coming into the shop to talk with. The general store was very much a community hub. Locals would call into the post office then come down to the shop and strike up conversations with other shoppers, with mum or dad, me or whoever else was behind the counter. If you weren’t talking you were listening to others talking so there was little that went on in the neighbourhood that you didn’t hear about. The papers that were regularly ordered always had names written, in Dad’s copperplate script, on the top corner so you knew who’d already been in and who was still to come.

Since people had often already been to the Post Office, and since I was a stamp-collector, I had a keen interest in the letters they were carrying. The Shepp East community featured cultural diversity long before it was a thing. We had successive waves of immigrants, Albanians around the time of the Second World War, Italians and Greeks immediately after the war, Yugoslavs soon after that. The letters that many shoppers carried had exotic looking stamps on them and I’d ask if I could have the envelopes to steam off the stamps. I had a good representation of central and southern Europe in my collection.

I recall seeing one well-covered envelope and I asked the stout and self-assured chap carrying it if I could have it. I took it home and as I took off the English stamps, I read the addressee as Sir John Gladstone Black McDonald. He was the last Country Party Premier of Victoria and he lived on Central Avenue up near the footy ground. Shyness was not a family trait.

On shelves below the glass-fronted shop counter were the display boxes of lollies. Honey bears, chocolate babies, musk sticks, snakes, choo-choo bars, liquorice blocks and liquorice straps, whizz-fizzes, sherbet bombs, gob-stoppers – and that’s just some of what was on offer. Kids would drool for what seemed hours as they selected threepence worth of lollies or took a punt on a sixpenny bag of mixed.

Their parents would ask for a stick or half-stick of cabana, ham or corned beef or perhaps a dozen slices of Beef Devon or Pork Strasbourg. We’d turn on the meat slicer and ever so carefully slide the meat across the spinning blade, not once turning around to answer an ill-timed question.

We sold bags of briquettes, chook food and bird seed. We poured petrol, checked oil and filled up pint and quart bottles of Mobil Oil, 20, 30 or 40 depending on the desired viscosity. The rack of bottles had to be kept full so we’d have to go to the shed and pump from 44 gallon drums to fill them.

There was a galvanised tank with a concreted bottom out the back of the shop. This was where, with a couple of school mates, we kept snakes. My mate’s father taught one mate to catch snakes and he in turn taught us. We’d go off to Gemmill’s Swamp over at Mooroopna or Reedy Swamp out the back of Shepp and catch Tiger snakes or someone would ring and say that they had a Brown snake they wanted gone. On warm wet nights we’d drive, underaged and unlicenced, up and down the back roads with a spotlight looking for frogs sitting on the damp asphalt. With a bag full, we’d go back and tip the unfortunate amphibians into the tank to keep our snakes alive.

When we had 50 or so snakes, enough to sell, we’d bag them up and take them down, more than once by hitchhiking, to Northcote where there was a large aquarium operator who on-sold them to the Australian Reptile Park in Gosford, NSW. There they’d be milked of their venom to prepare anti-venene.

The tank became a local landmark and many’s the time I’d be called upon to leave the shop and take someone out the back, jump into the tank and lift the hessian bags to display the snakes underneath.