Jan Hunter, volunteer cataloguer Albury Library Museum, 2018

Emporium Exhibition Albury, AlburyCity LibraryMuseum, 2014

A highly successful exhibition, Emporium: Inside Albury’s Most Famous Department Store, opened at the Albury LibraryMuseum in 2014. It featured stock and fittings of S.M.Abikhair’s clothing and drapery store which were purchased by AlburyCity in 1997 when the store closed. Opened in 1928, the shop offered seventy years of service from the same site. The exhibition was set up replicating the original layout of the store with boxes stacked to ceiling height, men’s and women’s departments segregated, original plaster models and clothing, and advertising posters from over the decades. There was a gala opening; an extensive catalogue outlining the history of S.M.Abikhair’s career and of the rise of department stores and a film featuring a former staff member, early customers and historians.

The large exhibition was preceded in 2010 by a smaller one, ‘Every inch the lady’, featuring ‘intimate garments’ from the Abikhair Collection. Since Emporium closed the exhibition has been travelling, spending time at the following venues:

  • Museum of the Riverina Wagga
  • Pine Rivers Heritage Museum Moreton Bay Regional Council
  • Hurstville Museum & Gallery NSW (2016)
  • Yarra Ranges Regional Museum
  • Newcastle Museum
  • Margaret Whitlam Galleries (within Western Sydney University)
  • Female Orphan School, Rydalmere NSW

These exhibitions feature objects rather than paperwork, but of significant value are more than a thousand documents which form part of the collection. Nothing had been thrown out so invoices, accounts, letters, and often the envelopes are preserved in remarkable condition. This huge collection of documents is housed in the dedicated paper store at Albury LibraryMuseum. They were catalogued collectively in folders but in the last couple of years volunteers have begun to catalogue them individually, revealing their further value.

Many of the documents are from the Federal Store, opened in 1907 by S.M. in Olive Street. When new premises were built in 1928 on the SE corner of Swift and Olive Streets boxes of papers must have been shifted in the relocation. A 1930 letterhead preserves the name of The Federal Store. The preservation of these documents, makes it  possible to follow several paths of history; one being the type of stock held (mattresses, sock suspenders, toys and hygiene belts); where the goods came from (warehouse after warehouse in Flinders Lane Melbourne); how they got to Albury (freight rail to Wodonga then by horse and cart and later motor vehicle to Albury); who were the customers (Indian hawkers from out of town or Mrs Smith from two streets away who sent a note ‘please give my daughter two aprons and advise price’); or whether accounts were paid in time to take advantage of a discount. Saad, and later his family, kept a finger on the pulse of the business – all invoices were checked, any errors quickly picked up no matter in whose favour, returns were recorded and all building contracts were noted ‘inspection by Mr Abikhair permitted at any time.’

The 1928 building housed several smaller shops facing Swift Street, one of which was Sam Lee’s Chinese laundry from 1943–1953. When the laundry closed all Lee’s documents in Chinese and English were bundled together and kept upstairs becoming part of the Abikhair Collection, allowing any future history student to calculate the use of  gas, coke, washing powder over the ten years. Also upstairs was a trunk containing a Chinese silk shirt belonging to Ah Bong, hawker, which is now on the Australian Dress Register.

Saad Milham Abikhair would be one of many migrants to Australia whose birth date is clouded in the past. Various sources put it at 1867 but his naturalisation certificate in August of 1901 has him aged 30, making it 1871.  The elaborate tombstone for members of the Abikhair family concurs with the first date. Is it important? No, not for the story of Saad as citizen and shopkeeper of Albury.  Saad arrived in N.S.W. with two cousins, Betro and Nicholas Abikhair from Chouier, Mt Lebanon, on the ‘Salier’ in 1889. They were most likely met by established members of the Sydney Lebanese community who set them up with horse, cart and goods to begin life in Australia as hawkers. Equipped with small items of drapery, manchester, etc. a hawker travelled from farm to farm selling goods particularly to people far from the shops. This would seem to be confirmed by the Government Gazette of 1898 when, as was the law, a horse brand was registered for Saad (of Dean Street Albury).   In 1900 one of the Albury newspapers lists S.M.Abikhair as receiving a hawker’s licence from the local magistrate.  However, in 1896, Saad’s story puts him with his cousin Betro at a drapery store in the heart of what was then Albury’s CBD.  From the prestigious Beehive Buildings, SE corner Townsend and Dean Streets, B Abikhair & Co advertised regularly as clothiers and drapers.  By 1904 S.M.Abikhair was asking the Albury Council to repair the asphalt in front of his shop in Townsend Street and very detailed advertisements by S.M.Abikhair and Co gave the address of that shop as ‘Dean and Townsend Streets’.

S.M Abikhair’s store in Emporium, Inside Albury’s Most famous Department Store, p. 5, Albury: AlburyLibrary Musem,2014

A little surprisingly then, in May 1904, S.M.’s advertisement was headed ‘Expiration of lease – leaving the town very shortly’, then from June to August the ad had bold print ‘Slaughter, Slaughter, Slaughter’ and listed the goods on sale. Still with the same address, the advertisement at the end of July 1907 heralded ‘Removing, Removing, Removing’ and on August 1st 1907 Saad took up a newly built shop at 550 Olive Street – north of Dean Street – and called it ‘The Federal Store’.

Federation was still a new concept in 1907 so perhaps Saad was capitalising on patriotic sentiment? His cousin Betro went further in 1912 when he built ‘The Australian Building’ with a coat of arms, on the SE corner of David and Dean Streets.

To the north of The Federal Store was a vacant corner block which Saad purchased.  Quotes for a new store with frontages to both Swift and Olive were sought (one came from Adelong) and, in 1928, ‘S.M.Abikhair, General Draper, Boots and Shoes’ was written along the facia of one of the earliest cantilever verandahs in Albury. S.M. appears to have sub-contracted the build – quotes included the rider, ‘materials supplied by the proprietor’, and most ended with ‘work to be done to the owner’s satisfaction.’ Receipts from J.W.Cochrane, Albury bricklayer, builder and sewerage expert, indicate that the bricks were purchased in small amounts as the work progressed.

This new store was divided (or segregated) into men’s and women’s wear with drapery and manchester in between and with men’s and women’s separate entrances from Swift Street and a general entrance on the corner. It has been suggested that the upstairs of the store was used as a wholesale department, and in 1930, S.M.Abikhair’s letterhead does state Merchant and Importer, Wholesale and Retail. A sixties staff member remembers it as being used for storage of stock (particularly hat boxes) and models. Abikhair’s did not sell luxury goods but good quality, long wearing items, suitable for hard work or ‘best’, with hats, boots or shoes available to complete the outfit. Crockery, toiletries, gifts, toys and materials by the yard were also available.

In the late fifties and early sixties, daughter, Thelma Abikhair trained the female staff in the art of fitting and selling corsets and then suggesting a brassiere might be also needed. Persuasion was to be used in helping a lady buy a hat which might not be the exact colour she wanted. All customers were important and as the family were the only ones who used the till, a shopper always had contact with an Abikhair somewhere in the transaction.

Letters came from country customers; one asking for the prompt despatch of some ‘mourning ribbon’ (used as a hatband when attending a funeral); another with a P.S. ‘you know me, I have often been at your shop and oblige’. The out of town orders came on bits of paper, some in pencil but generally with correct spelling and while the tone may have been terse, ‘please see these are sent on today’s coach’ they always ended formally with ‘Yr obedient servant’ or ‘Please oblige’.

Regular letters came to Abikhair’s from Indian hawkers. These travelling salesmen needed a licence and two sponsors and although local documentation is sparce, in 1906 S.M.Abikhair and Mr Malouf are listed as sponsors. Orders for shirts, collars, cottons and trousers, etc, ‘the same as last year’ came from outlying districts from men with names like Rule Singh, Nevan Singh and the probably Chinese, Shing Gee.

Saad became a property investor as early as 1910 when he bought at Henty. Rate notices for shops and dwellings also came from Urana and Culcairn, all within 150km of Albury.

While the business of earning a living was proceeding, Saad’s integration into Australian and Albury life began early when he was naturalised in 1901.  The previous year he put his signature to a letter from ‘we the natives of Mt Lebanon, better known as Palestine Syria’ who felt it was their duty to contribute to the Albury Hospital with the sum of ten pounds. This gift was seen by the local paper as ‘a handsome sum.’  Regular donations from Saad for the hospital followed in subsequent years. There were other gifts to community projects as varied as the building of the Methodist Parsonage (the church across the road); the building fund for the Roman Catholic Presbytery; the Australian Field Artillery in Albury, the Field Artillery Rifle Club and the Newtown Orphanage, run by the Sisters of Mercy. A 1911 printed receipt from the Albury Methodist Church is for pew (seat) rental which suggests Saad and/or his wife attended fairly regularly. Being part of the business community involved N.Sarroff and S.M.Abikhair attending one of the earliest meetings of the Albury Traders’ Association in 1905.

In 1902 Saad married Shefia, (1886-1974) also from Chouier and they had four children.  Sometime after 1914 Saad purchased the substantial family home at 485 Swift Street, from builder J. H.Berry. The home is within 500 metres of the shop and is notable for the three kookaburra finials on the gables. In the last two decades, the home, now named Abikhair House, has been extensively renovated into office suites. When Saad died in 1932 the management of the shop passed to Shefia with Walter, Allan and Thelma involved full time when they left school. With the passing decades, ‘Mr Wal’, as he was known, became the sole Abikhair left in the business. Despite failing health, a walking frame, then a motorised wheel chair, 93 year old Walter finally began months’ long closing-down sales in 1995.  S.M. Abikhair’s store had hardly changed in decades. The cash registers were pre-decimal, stock was still in boxes, marked at pre-decimal prices and hard-to-find items were still available.  Around 1996 interest in the store’s heritage status grew. Historians began to document the stories attached to the shop, linking Abikhairs to the worldwide growth of the department store – ‘the modern way of shopping’- and customers’ memories began to be recorded or written down. The local paper recorded that ‘Mr Wal’ became irate when people wanted to buy the shop fittings as vintage items – they were not for sale – and prior to the store finally closing its doors an auction sale of the stock was held in December 1997. The remaining contents of both floors were purchased by AlburyCity with a grant from N.S.W. Ministry for the Arts.

Saad and Shefia Abikhair in Emporium, Inside Albury’s Most famous Department Store, p. 6, Albury:Albury Library Musem,2014.

Walter Saad Abikhair was born in 1903 at a private hospital several streets away from the business and he continued his whole life within a short distance of his home. His schooling was at Albury Public and Albury High Schools, then he worked in the shop till he retired completely in 1996, aged 93. But, as the sole survivor of the four children, he continued to visit the shop regularly, in his motorised wheelchair, until the doors closed in 1997. He died in October 1997, aged 94.

Jamiel, (known as Jimmy) Abikhair was born in 1905; he also attended Albury schools and ran a small service station on the SW corner of Mate and Fallon Streets, North Albury. This corner block, thought to have been bought by Saad before WWI, had a pise house facing Fallon Street rented out long term. Jimmy is fondly remembered for handing out little bags of lollies for the children with the petrol change. He enlisted in the Commonwealth Military Forces in 1942 and served in Australia, until his discharge in 1946. He died in 1986 and the service station was demolished and the petrol tanks removed c.2005.  The site of Jimmy’s service station is still in family’s hands, adjoined by a further purchase of a former factory.

Amien Allan Abikhair (1906-1999) also was educated in Albury and as a young man played football for Albury Rovers during the interwar years.  He was a regular player at Glenly Tennis Club, North Albury.  He married Ada Annie Beca (1913-2004) and they had two children. Allan and Ada purchased Osborne’s Gift Shop at 487 Dean Street, (in the fifties?) which, after Allan died was managed by Ada till she retired. That shop continues, still under the name of Osborne’s, still in Abikhair hands. Around 1950 Allan built an Art Deco family home in Forrest Hill, which is still occupied by a member of the family.

 Thelma, (1913-1987) followed the family pattern of education in Albury and working in the store.  She attended the Methodist Church from a young age, passing Sunday School exams. Thelma’s name appeared in the local paper with music exam results and her formal singing lessons resulted in a pass at a high level. Over the next decades, Thelma contributed to the music scene in Albury as a member of the Albury Choral Society and the Methodist Church choir.  Another interest was in the Business and Professional Women’s Club of Albury where Thelma was a foundation member. This group worked towards gender equity in the workplace and encouraged the education of girls through mentorship and financial help. Thelma is buried, along with Saad, Shefia, Walter, Allan, Ada, and Jimmy, under an impressive headstone in the Albury Pioneer Cemetery.

The extensive and well preserved S.M.Abikhair’s Emporium collection will continue to intrigue viewers of the future particularly through the online catalogue of Albury LibraryMuseum and the photos on Flickr.  The unfolding story of the hundreds of documents will provide a fascinating insight into a specific form of retailing as practiced by the Lebanese community in Australia.

Abikhair family studio portrait, in Emporium, Inside Albury’s Most famous Department Store, p. 11, Albury: Albury Library Musem,2014.

Information sourced from:

  • Emporium Inside Albury’s Most Famous Department Store, Jacqui Durrant, Albury City 2014
  • Albury Banner and Wodonga Express newspapers, Trove and microfilm
  • Border Morning Mail newspapers, Trove and microfilm
  • Articles about the Lebanese community in Australia on the Internet
  • Government Gazettes
  • ‘Emporium’  film on Nomad Films website 2014
  • Mrs L Boyd, (nee Widdison) Salesperson C.1958-sixties
  • Albury LibraryMuseum Collection and staff
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