In 1999 I did an experiment: I went to every St Vincent de Paul op shop in Sydney. This experiment I made into the zine Vinnies, in which I wrote about each of the stores, the experiences I had there, the things I encountered for sale, and anything else that came into my head. I did this project over a couple of summer months, going out every day with my Spirax notebook of addresses and maps that I’d copied from the street directory the night before. I’d come home laden with bags of things I’d picked up on my travels, and all the stories I’d been a part of that day.
In doing this project, as well as amassing a lot more stuff, I learnt a great deal about Sydney. I’ve lived in Sydney all my life. I grew up around the north and north western suburbs but it wasn’t until I went exploring the Vinnies that I got to know whole regions of the city I’d never been to before. I’d never been to the south of Sydney at all, for example, at least no further than the big Salvos store at Tempe, until I went in search of the op shops there.
Through making my Vinnies zine the city expanded, it came to life. I’ve always been a fan of suburbs. Exploring them is an exercise in noticing details and putting your own life and worries into perspective: you realise you are just one person in a city of millions of others. Despite this, when I started making zines I was motivated to explore places and write about my experiences because I rarely found perspectives that matched mine, especially in the media of the 1990s. Even still I find little in common with the dominant conceptions of Sydney. Luckily there is now more scope for different stories to be told, as people keep blogs specific to the city and its suburbs, documenting their particular experiences in particular places.
When I was growing up, Sydney felt like a big old cupboard – I’d open it up and find all sorts of clutter in there, hidden away. I don’t feel this way about it anymore, it has expanded, become a big city of the world with too many parts to comprehend. I make my paths through it, and its secrets are not so much places anymore, they are the feelings I have towards them. There are as many different Sydneys as there are people who tell stories about it.
I’ve often given thought to re-doing my Vinnies project. I still love op shopping, although op shops now are no longer the secret places they once were. I have repeated my Vinnies project in other forms over the years: I rewrote my op shop explorations as the story Second World in my book Strawberry Hills Forever, and I’ve written stories and done performances about op shopping and the things I’ve found there. I’ve enjoyed getting deeply into the subject and interrogating it, and it’s given me a working method that I’m going to try out on another kind of place.
I’ve had the idea to explore Sydney’s libraries for a number of years. Libraries, like op shops, are places that are open to the local community and you’re free to use them no matter who you are and how much money you might or might not have.
Another similarity is that you never know exactly what you are going to find in an op shop or a library, they’re both places where one of the dominant activities is browsing, coming across things by chance.
They both also have a relationship to nostalgia: in the op shop it is through the objects of the past you find there, and with libraries its through their link to our childhoods. They form part of our childhood memories and we can have deep feelings of connection to them.
My aim for this project is to explore some of my favourite libraries in Sydney – ones I remember from my childhood at first, and then go further and explore libraries in different suburban locations around Sydney. I’m not as completist as I was in 1999, I don’t intend to go to them all. This blog will be based on experiences and observations and the interesting things I discover along the way.
Looking back on the way I went about making Vinnies it is surprisingly dated for a project done 12 years ago: I’d taken the list of shops from the White Pages and used this for reference. I used notebooks, street directories, I took photos with a 35mm camera, and finally I assembled it all into a zine. I have made zines consistently since, and I love zines about exploring and interrogating place, but I do think that blogs are a technology that suits the gradual exploration of a place or idea or a thing. They’re a way to collect thoughts and exchange ideas and this is what I hope that this blog will be.