I moved to Fremantle in my early 20s. Either the phenomenon of the nostalgic cafe was coming in to being or I was just discovering it. I was too young to rightfully feel nostalgic, yet I delighted in the warm red brick cafes cropping up everywhere. The Attic was my favourite. It had squirrely stairs which wound tightly around the back of the building. It was full of deep old couches and people wearing scarves. The menus were written in chalk, a novelty at the time.
As my eye grew sharper, I began to notice how the nostalgia was sustained by selected aspects of modernity — track lighting with LED bulbs, thoughtful furniture and a Commonwealth Bank contactless payment system. Last time I had a coffee there, a friend and I talked about blockchain. People wore old jumpers and thick-rimmed glasses, but also typed on laptops with arrogant tranquillity. It’s still a few years before Thrift Shop is released.
We live in something of a mashup culture — typified by Reddit’s pixel art experiment, but embodied even in the experience of buying coffee.
Over the crest of Walpole street, as one descends Swanbourne and crosses in to Cottesloe, a new cafe has opened. It’s called the North Street Store.
Stepping in to the North Street Store is like stepping back in time. It has sandy linoleum floors, cheaply laminated labels and an exposed kitchen. The coffee and food are aligned with modern tastes, but the visual aesthetic is straight out of a mid-50's corner store run by European immigrants. Olive Oil is sold in unmarked green bottles with label residue and, puzzlingly, a small number of garlic bulbs are available for sale. The brushed metal tables look as though they’ve been lifted straight out of a tradie’s deli in Welshpool and the wooden tables outside are chipped. The staff exude warmth, not coolness, and idle chatter fills and spills outside the store.
Most strikingly, the store has children. Two boys lean forward and rest their full weight on big plastic cars, ramming them in to counters and laughing. They are not being scolded by their parents or grimaced at by strangers. Children outside draw on the sidewalk with chalk. Against the North Street Store, other cafes take on a Children of Men quality — what does it say about our culture if nostalgia has written progeny out of the picture?
Forgive me if this seems gut-wrenchingly nostalgic. I don’t have a love of nostalgia so much as a love of unity. I also don’t mean to suggest that these decisions aren’t contrived or intentional — they clearly are. The North Street Store is just nostalgia done correctly. Only the soft drinks labelled as “softies,” seems self-consciously hip. It’s a place that makes you want to pay in cash.
It has become a very popular cafe in a highly competitive area, which suggests it is excavating some fragment of our collective unconscious.
I sit inside. Outside, a neo-colonialist tech billionaire is dating a pop punk idol who describes herself as an anti-imperialist, A sad cartoon frog is being repurposed as a mascot for internet neo-nazis, and a student of the Dalai Lama is embroiled in the #metoo movement. Movies like Ready Player One reproduce culture and patriarchy in a way that can’t be easily read as either ironic criticism or enthusiastic endorsement.
We’re occupying a moment of great aesthetic confusion — meme culture means that icons and symbols are purposelessly recombinated as a form of nihilistic play.
Our culture of “changemaking” borrows this aesthetic with its focus on collaboration and emergence. It embraces uncertainty about how the future may look and feel, and affirms a commitment to process over outcome — just like the Reddit artwork.
Aesthetics matter. Our ideas of the world are derived from our sense of what looks and feels beautiful. Right now, our sense of what is beautiful is deeply confused.
In this vision, the North Street Store may be a bellwether for our aesthetic imagination of the future. A typical cafe borrows the nostalgia of the log cabin or artist’s studio — timber, chalk, and kitsch — and blends it with a selection of our preferred aspects of modernity —co-working, fashion, and eco-consumerism. The North Street Store takes on the past more whole-heartedly. It eschews tech, reflecting our distrust of social media giants and banks. It eschews beauty and cleanliness, favouring the grit that comes with re-purposing and improvisation. It values place-based community rather than youthful cosmopolitanism.
The North Street Store is not a model of the future; it is a model about our present ideas of the future.
Its importance shouldn’t be overstated — it sits in an enormously privileged corner of Perth where people have walkable neighbourhoods and disposable income. I don’t mean to suggest that the store can or should be replicated elsewhere.
However, there is something to the meteoric popularity of the North Street Store. The store has taken hold here in Perth’s Westernmost suburbs. Here it quietly sits juxtaposed against the gentrified homes of Perth’s nouveau riche — their homes gray, white, black and angular, usually gated, their children beautiful and pale. In contrast to the echoic and clean homes of their customers, the North Street Store is bustling and grimy.
Aesthetics imply ethics. The North Street Store implies leisure over work, simplicity over complexity, and unity over fragmentation.