When you first come down the stairs, the Degraves Street Subway seems a bit daunting. The long, pale pink tiled corridor with its blocked-off doorways and blotched asphalt, seems the perfect place for a mugging. A mysterious blind alley, which used to be an opening into the Mutual Store (and the earliest bowling alley in the CBD), leads off to your right. But stick with this corridor. It’s safe and is actually the route into the Campbell Arcade - a little slice of indie fringe artist-land which I think is a fine place to be.
The Degraves Street Subway and the Campbell Arcade opened in 1955, just before the 1956 Olympic Games. The salmon pink tiles, black granite columns and Art Deco shopfronts are the original 1950s decor. And, if that isn’t enough of a recommendation to visit, the old display cabinets along the subway wall have been taken over by the Platform Artists Group and show anything from cartoons to the artists themselves.
The Platform Artists Group also use Vitrine, the big display cabinet at the bottom of the stairs that lead up to Flinders Street, which used to be the bookshop of eccentric antiquarian bookseller/hoarder Richard Berry. Richard would be on hand on Fridays in case anyone was interested in buying any of the books in the glass case. He collected large amounts of ephemera, much of which is still being auctioned off 4 years after his death. When Richard died, many people left wreaths outside Vitrine.
The Arcade is a good example of Melbourne's famous bohemian arcades and lanes: it's chock full of interesting salons, shops and boutiques, and is appropriately scented by brewed coffee from the tiny Cup of Truth Coffee Bar (take a look at the photo montage on their website). The arcade shops are patronized by virtuoso shoppers looking for that original buy, as well as discerning visitors (it's on the official Melbourne Laneway tour). The afternoon I was there, 5pm bought a rush of young Japanese girls looking at brooches and necklaces.
The shops include Cat’s Meow - real girl-sized ethically-made locally-designed women’s clothing, Subject to Change - locally made clothing designs and vintage items, Corky St Clair- a jewellery maker with a “foresty” theme, Wax Museum - new and used Hip hop, Funk, Soul, Jazz beats, Reggae and Dance hall recordings (including vinyl), Lo Life - own brand skateboards and related gear and Some like it Hot - recycled clothing and locally designed bags.
Other shops are down-to-earth places serving the needs of rushing commuters. There's a newsagent, a lap-top repair shop with Internet cafe, and a hairdresser. And, in case you were interested, the Touch of Paris hairdressing salon has been run for 20 years by a retired Italian opera singer and his wife. They've cut the hair of many entertainment types, including Tony Robinson from Blackadder, Gary McDonald, Rachael Ward and Geoff Cox.
There's also The Sticky institute, a Co-Op dedicated to the making of zines - little hand-made magazines dedicated to everything from sexuality to comics about pets. Ziners love the feel of paper. If anything, the Internet and blogging has made the Zine scene stronger. When there are volunteers to staff it, the shop is one of the busiest in the arcade, full of people from Melbourne and interstate, making badges and networking.
Once you’re used to it, the Arcade has a cosy feel, disturbed only by the thunder of trams trundling along Flinders Street above. It's always been a shopping arcade, though apparently it used to be much busier before the City Loop shared the commuter traffic across 3 other stations. Even so, around 70,000 commuters pass through of a morning, and the coffee shop does a roaring trade. Even on the quiet afternoon I visited, the hairdresser had a continual stream of customers and the coffee man kept pulling coffees.
The arcade flooded last year due to blocked drains, and back in 2008 a misjudgement during roadworks on Flinders Street caused the roof over Corky St Clair and the recycled clothing shop to collapse. The traders all wish the space was more welcoming to ordinary passersby, but admit that the cheap rent makes up for this.
The subway beyond the station turnstiles is noticeably older. The walls under the station platforms have the original 1901 cream coloured tiles, and the ceiling is corrugated tin.
This ring is from a collection called Precious Nothing, contemporary jewellery work that explores how we imbue the common and everyday with preciousness. Pretty much how I feel about Flinders Street Station, if the truth be told! A mould was made of the Flinders Street Station steps and cast into gold. A photo of the artist in the process of making the ring can be seen at http://cazguiney.com/precious-nothing-2008/