Leo Russell Sports (est 1935)

Address: 24 Gilbert Rd, Preston VIC 3072

Phone: (03) 9484 1343


From an interview with Peter that has been edited

In 1935 my father started a library.

He was a self-made sort of bloke who tackled everything.

He bound all of the books by himself, went to war, came back in a crook state and sold crockery.

But his true love was tennis. He was a mad-keen tennis player with a huge backhand, and he decided to string racquets by hand. We used to string them all with beef and lamb intestines from Vesteys meat manufacturer in Footscray. In the old days nylon was rubbish, so gut was what everyone used.

We had thousands of tennis, squash & badminton racquets, and Dad was the Fitzroy Tennis Club. He built it up and, through his relationship with Dunlop, he’d say “I’ll keep buying Dunlop stuff if you give me your top player.”

The business grew to the extent that the manager of Dunlop would take my parents out for dinner and dad – who smoked his pipe all bloody day and drank a fair bit – would clear everything out to have a dance in the shop

We used to live here, and a big group of people would come and kick on every night.

Photo of Peter by Tatiana C C Scott

After the radio and TV boom in the 1950’s he installed aerials on roofs, until he was priced out by the big discounters.

He sold vinyl records and cassettes for a while, he used to have tricycles and bikes hanging from hooks on the ceiling, a big rack with fishing rods & reels and guns & ammo displayed in the window. He’d coat the guns in oil to prevent people from firing them and – one day – someone pulled the entire window out, nicked them all and they were gone.

Dad went through stages where he’d have Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus golf sets, baseball gear, softball gear and so on to make it an all-round sports shop. Over time, he put cricket gear in. At one stage, we had 100 bats on the floor and pads & gloves hanging on the hooks. We had stumps, bails, boxes, thigh pads, artificial mats to test the bats and every bloody thing.

It was enormous. We’d oil the bats, put pigskin on the face of the bat to protect them and bone them with a great big bloody calf or beef bone. The shop was what Rebel try to be today, and dad’s philosophy was – when things disappear – you have to come up with something else.

He didn’t want to get stuck with a losing game.

Photo by Tatiana C C Scott

The ASICS started about 50 years ago.

We initially brought in a squash shoe that was white with yellow stripes.

Then we put in a spiky sole that people used for hockey, running and what have you. Then we got a proper running shoe, and it evolved from there.

A guy who used to bring the tennis racquets down to be repaired said that the good stuff was called Tiger, then it became ASICS Tiger, then they dropped the Tiger and made it a separate part of the brand.

That’s how we ended up with ASICS.

ASICS are 12 months of the year, while cricket is only two, so that explains its longevity in the shop.

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Photo by Tatiana C C Scott

I never imagined that I’d work here. 

I learned to string racquets because I wanted to buy a car.

I did trade work for Spalding’s, who would give you 20-40 racquets and you’d stand there all day stringing.

I went to Melbourne Tech after high school, studied land surveying, was hopeless and had no interest in it. They said, “see you later” and I said good. I came home really down and I didn’t know what to do, so dad said, “no worries, come back to the shop and we’ll put cricket and everything in.”

I started practicing and playing tennis seven days a week. I had a proper go at it when I was 29, started my own tennis coaching business and strung racquets on the side. The coaching side of things became too big, and I couldn’t work here anymore.

I’d come back and tell my dad that I played shithouse, and he’d say “I’ve been stringing racquets all day, I’d love to be out there like you.” He didn’t care that I was wasting my bloody time and money.  His attitude was, “keep going, you’ll be right.” My parents were generous, so I was lucky.

Dad died when I was 43, I gave my coaching career away and came into the business full time with my mum.

As she got older, I took over completely and the cricket side of the business got bigger and bigger.

Photo by Tatiana C C Scott

Stringing by hand using guts and mains is an art. 

It buggered the competition that didn’t know how to do it, but now it’s all special titanium with big headed racquets.

We were losing the tennis side of the business as other places opened, and we couldn’t cope with it all.

Something had to give, so we focused on cricket instead.

Eventually – as more places started taking a piece of the pie – cricket also went by the wayside.

Now the ASICS have taken over completely.

Photo by Tatiana C C Scott

When I buy shoes, it’s like I have ten arms.

My mum said I was Kerry Packer.

And the range is getting so enormous compared to ten years ago. Back then you’d have one junior shoe for boys and girls but, now, there’s a whole bloody girls and boys range. So if you don’t buy big and run out you have no stock. But, if something doesn’t work you’re stuck with a zillion pairs.

Black is a fashion colour which is dominating, and it’s killed all the other netball shoes. With last season, what I thought was going to work didn’t work.

So buying is difficult.

You think you have it by the balls, you follow your buying pattern and, next season, it doesn’t work and all of the boxes upstairs are looking at you.

Photo by Tatiana C C Scott

It’s a pride thing now, to see the place going.

I don’t want to be the person that’ll see it bomb.

The person that’ll lose it.

We’ve had customers come here for over 40 years, and we’ve become a bit of a cult store.

Big business is impersonal, and a lot of people say, “I’ve never been fitted properly.” We make a point of going down to your feet, fitting you and advising you on the shoes you should be getting.

We’re open 9-5 during the week and from 9-12 on Saturdays. We’re not open all bloody day like at the centres. You give them a few years working 7 days a week and they’ll have a breakdown.

And our Saturday’s are huge. A couple of years ago we’d do 120 sales in 3 hours, and I’d tell customers, “you have to come at 9am because we can’t serve 100 people at 11:30am.”

I’m old and I’m getting tired, so I don’t want to be stuck here at quarter to 3.

Photo by Tatiana C C Scott
Photo by Tatiana C C Scott

People like coming here because we’re not up ourselves, our product is well-priced and we’re bloody good at what we do.

If we don’t keep the customers happy, they’ll get pissed off. And if they’re pissed off it’s bad advertising.

So, no matter how much it costs me, I have to keep them happy.

And all the people that work here are probably as good friends as I’ve got.

That’s how it should be.

Photo by Tatiana C C Scott
Photo by Tatiana C C Scott

Written by Aron Lewin, with all photos by Tatiana C C Scott


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2 thoughts on “Leo Russell Sports (est 1935)

  1. I’ve seen this shop for many years. Went in today for the first time, very professional. Got the right runner fitted to my feet. Getting a second pair in 2 days.


  2. Amazing you are still in Gilbert Rd. I lived in Miller St around the corner. Jill Swain lived opposite, she is currently up here visiting qld. Unfortunate I won’t be able to make the reunion as I have some plumbing to fix on my heart. Now living in Sunshine Coast 10 yrs.
    Hope you all enjoy Reunion. Maybe make it to the next one.Cheers Joy Sands nee Dryburgh. 😜


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