Address: 157 Darebin Rd, Thornbury VIC 3071
From an interview with Vince, Angela and Bruno in May 2021 that has been edited
Published in collaboration with the Darebin City Council
(Angela) Vince and I started a fruit and vegetable shop after marrying in 1966.
Vince had a cousin who lived on top of a fruit shop, which was next door my father’s mixed business, where I worked growing up. The day we got engaged, Vince said, “we just bought a fruit shop.”
When he said the shop was in Thornbury, I thought he was taking me into the bush, even though it was a 10-minute drive.
I didn’t want to start a fruit shop, as I was tired of working in shops.
He said, “We don’t have to be here forever,”
“Just a couple of years.”
That’s how we started, nearly 60 years ago now.
(Vince) I bought the shop so I could make a good living.
I used to work in concrete – working so hard all the time – and I thought this would be a good business. I saw my cousin had the fruit business for so many years, and he influenced me. Having a shop seemed like a better way to make a living. It wasn’t a big shop, but it was enough to support a family.
(Angela) I remember I didn’t know anything about fruit and vegetables, and there wasn’t much by way of European fruit and vegetables in the area. Locals had typical Australian things – pumpkins, potatoes, carrots and beans. Everything was in season, and when the season wasn’t there you couldn’t get cauliflower, cabbage and so on.
When we started our shop, we sold eggplants, zucchini and peppers. People would say, “what’s this – I’ve never seen this before.” It was unusual for the Thornbury locals, who didn’t know much about what was then European produce. They weren’t going to change their style because, when you get to a certain age, you get used to your type of food.
I don’t blame them, as I’m the same.
But the younger generation were curious, and more open to change.
(Angela) It was hard-going for a while but, around the late 1960s-early 1970s, the Greek community started moving to Thornbury.
Locals started to get their produce here, and customers who lived further out – in areas like Heidelberg and Ivanhoe – would call for their orders, and pick them up on the way home from work. We’d also deliver to make sure that we looked after them.
This shop has only been sold once, by the previous owner to us. He said, “if you look after your customers, they’ll stay with you.”
That’s been true.
They really stuck with us.
(Angela) Around the time that the GST came in, we’d had enough of the fruit and vegetable shop.
We took a break for three months, and my husband said “I’m getting tired of staying at home.”
“How about you?”
Where we are now – which is next door where the fruit and vegetable shop was – went up for sale in the 1980s, and was on the market for 12 months. We bought both shops together under the one title.
After a while, my husband said we’d come in with a few plants rather than fruit and vegetables. He just loved plants, and there was money in it. (Vince) Fruit is alright, but it’s hard work. There’s lots of competition, and not much profit in it. I thought plants and flowers were a better fit.
We were one of the first to sell continental seedlings, and the European community loved it. Because we had the TAB next to us, there’d be a line out the door waiting for seedlings on Melbourne Cup day. I also grew up on the farm in Italy and I loved to garden at home.
When I bought the property, we laid the area out the back with tomatoes, cucumber and beans, and grew pomegranates, passionfruit and so on, which we’d then sell. I wanted to do something to keep active.
The plants were not as perishable as fruits and vegetables, they were more sustainable and I could grow what I wanted.
(Angela) The transition from fruits and vegetables to plants was hard because I didn’t know anything about them.
I couldn’t arrange flowers but one day I thought, “I’m sitting here, why don’t I try it.” You’re never too old to learn.
I tied a few bunches together and everyone was happy with them, so I started arranging. I also read to learn more. I’m not professional but I’m self taught and I haven’t received complaints.
When it comes to picking plants and flowers it’s all about discovering what sells. If people want something that we don’t have in the shop, we’ll often order them in and get it to the customer.
Customers come in and say, “what course did you do,” but you learn as you go.
(Bruno) My parents were pioneers.
They walked into a second generation shop – in an area where people ate meat and three veg – and they started selling eggplants, garlic, onion and zucchini. They educated everyone on that produce. Then they saw the trends with plants, flowers and everything else.
Dad had the foresight to include seedlings into the original business, as well as things like Devils Ivy’s in the 70s and 80s. He also saw – with things like Monsteras and succulents – that you could buy them for $20, and repot it for a bit of a mark-up.
I think they had a hand in changing the demographic of Thornbury. When people see produce they are familiar with, they feel more comfortable coming in to the area. My parents managed to maintain Australian influences and customs, while bringing in those European elements as well.
(Angela) Now, when you walk in here, you’re hit with a burst of colour.
(Angela) When we had the fruit shop, I’d see customer’s kids grow up, leave home, get married then bring their kids in to the shop.
I still keep in touch with one customer who just turned 95. When I came in as a 23-year-old, she was in her 40s. The customers all took me under their wing, and would tell me which top to cut off, and which to keep.
I remember someone once asking me to take the top off their rhubarb and, as an Italian, I was so unfamiliar with it. I said, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s the top and what’s the bottom.” She said the leaves are poisonous and I was glad she told me. In the beginning, I learned all these things from our customers.
When I had my first child in 1967, some customers got together and started knitting to look after me. They’d always get a Christmas gift for me, my husband and our children. Always. Every year.
That connection came from the fact that we really served our customers. When we were working in the grocer, we’d pick the fruit and veg for the customer and put everything in the bag. They appreciated that.
It doesn’t matter what you’re selling. If you want your business to be around in the long run, you have to respect the customer and tell the truth. Even though we’re off the main street, we’ve been here since 1966. That longevity comes from not wanting to do badly by another person.
(Bruno) I could take shortcuts, but will you come back?
That’s the question I have to ask myself.
(Bruno) During 2020, gardening exploded in popularity.
As plant sellers, we fell under essential services as a horticultural business.
I opened, but not to the full extent. There would be 2-3 plants outside, and flowers were at a minimum. Because of that boom, everyone – including chemists and grocers – jumped on board with plants and flowers. Gardening was of great importance during this period. Once a week I’d bring the products out, water them and try to maintain the garden.
There was one specific customer who stood out to me. I know every face but I hadn’t seen her before. She was walking her dog, stopped and yelled out, “are you guys open?” She came for 30 minutes and said, “you have no idea how happy I am looking at plants.”
“I haven’t been able to do it for so long.”
We also had people who were urgently buying seeds around March and April last year, and they were shocked that they were the same price as always. They were prepping for the end of the world, and everyone else was jacking their prices up. I’d tell them all the reasons why the seedlings might not grow, and why they wouldn’t have tomatoes by winter.
If I wanted to ignore the lessons my parents taught me I’d have sold them at a mark-up and taken their money
But, I’d say, “listen, if you do decide to propagate seeds, this is what you need to do.”
“You can’t just throw them into the ground.”
(Bruno) Locals often come by to say hello.
If anything, COVID-19 has changed people’s perceptions in terms of communicating and interacting with locals. Strip shops being empty take away from that community feel, and people have really missed that.
(Vince) I’m very proud of the shop. You’ve got to be happy with what you do. I worked so hard – from morning to night – and I grew all sorts of things in the garden. We made a lot of customers happy over the years, and brought colour and life into people’s houses.
(Angela) I’m not sure what will happen in the future but I expect the business will stay in the family.
Written by Aron Lewin with all photos taken by Tatiana C. C. Scott