Address: 196 Bridport St, Albert Park VIC 3206
Phone: (03) 9690 4114
From an interview with Tony (with Lazarus and Helen) that has been edited
[Tony] Dad used to work at Fridgerate before leaving in 1977.
It was a company in Moorabbin, and they used to take milk tanks to farms. They also made refrigerators for Coles and other supermarkets.
He was a fitter and turner so he knew a lot about gas, copper and stuff like that, as every European had an idea of being a bit of a handyman. But, eventually, he had had enough.
We had this building so he thought, “let’s see if we can open something and see what happens.”
[Lazarus] It was hard for me because I didn’t know English very well.
But the warehouses helped.
I went to John Danks who explained, “this is this one, this is that one.” He was a major supplier of ours back then, but it was bought out by Masters and then Mitre 10.
They cease to exist anymore.
But they – as well as other businesses across Melbourne – were good to us.
[Lazarus] I didn’t have a trades’ background.
But I have done a bit of everything. I’d dig and put potatoes in, weeded & shipped milk. And some of the skills sort of transferred.
[Tony] And – when they came here – rather than paying a tradesman they would get themselves or somebody they knew to do it. They would pay attention to what they were doing because they were working to live.
And the community was tight-knit so they were all helping each other out. But, going from a farmer and a grower to a hardware owner.
[Tony] And, for me, going to Uni would have been a waste of time.
My teacher always used to say, “we have Tony’s favourite subject.”
And I’d say, “shit.”
I hated fractions with a passion.
But, after finishing high school I worked here and – within six months of learning how to correspond the metric with the imperial system – I got it. Plus I had the gift of the gab and I used to remember things, so it worked for me.
After the six months I went on a holiday to work out what I wanted to do with my life.I came back and – 28 years later – I’m still here. My mentality was, “we have got a business here.”
“Let’s see how far we can take it.”
My motto is we try to have at least one of everything.
Keys, electrical cables, mats, housewares, paints, timber, plumbing.
Everything that a house would need we try and have. We don’t want to have 20 of one, but if there’s something that sells you’ll have more than one.
[Lazarus] And when we started there was a hardware store around here that had been around for more than 100 years. There was another one further, one on Victoria Avenue and one in Port Melbourne.
They’ve all closed now.
It’s a different age.
The batteries in the old days weren’t as big as what we’ve got now.
There were AA’s, D’s, C’s and AAA’s but now there’s 30-40 different types of batteries. Lithium ones, alkaline ones, rechargeable ones. You have a bigger variety. And with screws back then you might have had 4-6 different sizes but, now, there’s 26 different sizes.
We still sell standardised stuff: irons, hoses, chains & plain zinc bolts. The hand tools haven’t changed much either. The best hammer back then – like the Estwing hammer – used to be $80, and today they are still about $80.
But the smaller nuts and bolts have changed a lot. We’re the only country that uses both the imperial and the metric system, so half of our stuff is metric & half is imperial.
Until you bring the nut in, we don’t know what to sell you.
We’ll just say, “take both and bring back whichever one you don’t want.”
You have to keep up with the trends.
But there might be stuff stashed here that we haven’t sold for 20 years. It’s probably hidden somewhere.
And we still have some of the old Ford, Holden and Mazda keys. They’ve been sitting here for so long because no one has the old cars anymore. What do you do? Do you throw them away?
We get a lot of kids who’ll come in and they’re interested in them. It’s like a novelty, a collectors’ item. I was looking on eBay the other day as a joke – searching locksmith and stuff like that – and there were old keys with ‘Glover,’ ‘McEwan,’ ‘Mitre 10’ & ‘Bisbas Hardware.’
You see yours in there and it’s like, “wow.”
That’s our keys!”
It’s like a time warp.
Albert Park has always been unique.
We’re like a country town but within the city limits & bay.
And everyone that comes in is trying to make it easier for themselves. They don’t have to jump in the car, open the roller door, go to the shop etc. People in the area usually walk past, say good morning and – if they don’t have the money – the response might be, “don’t worry about it.”
“Take it and pay us tomorrow.”
And a lot of people have us in the back of their minds because there’s a real relationship between the customers and shop owners. In business, you do one good thing and they tell one person.
But if you do one bad thing, they tell 10 people. So I trust everyone that comes into my shop. I say, “treat it like your own shed.” Once you do that for customers, they’re more relaxed and they look forward to coming.
But if you’re uptight they don’t want to come.
We want to keep that village feel, so we try to make Bisbas Hardware a community based shop.
But the mentality has changed.
We are forgetting where the roots started.
Our mindset is telling us that we have to go to the big store because they have everything. Not necessarily. To get a small item it might cost you an hour’s time.
Here – you might have a problem parking – but you can come in and get it. There’s no pressure to buy the most expensive item. If you want to buy a BBQ or a plant or whatever, that’s different, but with the little nooks and crannies we’re the best.
Probably once a week I hear, “oh Tony I’ve been to five stores and they don’t have it.”
“Why didn’t you come here in the first place?”
“Oh, I didn’t think.”
Once Bunnings opened up in Port Melbourne we lost 50 per cent of our business, but I think people are coming back to smaller stores.
Slowly, slowly. They are starting to realise that if we don’t keep the little guy we’ll have troubles down the track.
Things will get expensive and – once your competitors close – all you can do is raise prices.
And if someone comes in with a weird request we can try and fix it.
For example, a lady had a pasta machine with a broken handle at the bottom. I said, “let me see what I can do.”
I went out the back, fixed it and it worked perfectly. She asked me how much I wanted, and I requested some pasta. I’m still waiting for it but – when she makes her next batch – she’ll hopefully give me a bowl.
The best one I’ve had: an older lady came in and I fixed something. I can’t remember what it was but – because I didn’t charge anything – she went to the bottle shop and said, “here Tony.”
“Have a VB on me.”
To me, the small gestures mean a lot because they’ve put thought into it.
Change in Albert Park is always positive.
We’ve all become yuppies, we’ve all become the Jones’s.
I was brought up here and – I’m not trying to be a snob or anything – but I just couldn’t live anywhere else. I have the bay here, the city next to me, a lovely business and I’m in a lovely area. Things have changed but, for what Albert Park is, it’s Albert Park.
And if I didn’t have good customers I would have left. If I sit out the front, people come past and say, “hi Tony” and, “Tony’s sitting down again.” I give them tongue-in-cheek and vice versa.
I have a couple of tradesman who come past each day for coffee, and there are kids that I knew from birth who come in to say hello. Now they’re 21. So that chemistry, that respect, that’s what’s kept me here.
That’s what I love.
We have arguments sometimes.
But it’s a family business.
We work seven days, so we’re around each-other all the time.
You have to try and separate work and family.
That’s what it is.
No one knows what the future will hold.
I’d say we’re probably here for 5-15 years unless someone comes around and offers a ridiculous amount of money. I’m still 46. Till 65, what am I going to do.
It’s easy to say, “I’m going to retire” but what do you do knowing you’ve been working for yourself for such a long time. And dad is 76.What’s he going to do, sit upstairs and read the paper?
His mates come at 2pm and they all have coffee for a few hours.
That’s what it’s all about.
Written by Aron Lewin, all photos by Tatiana C C Scott