Views from the Bottle-O

A look at the contrasts in Sydney suburban culture


Words || Matthew Carson

As the gatekeeper of that prized and storied elixir of ours, alcohol, you often get to see people at their best and at their worst.

It’s quite depressing, and the old adage that working in a Bottle-o is actually two jobs in one, a sales assistant and a psychologist, is not actually far off the mark. There are countless customers where you just go through the motions every time you see them. They buy the same thing, pay in the same way, say the same things, and you hope that one day maybe they won’t show up because they’ve given up the drink. Beyond that, working in a Bottle-o is fascinating just for the insight you are able to gain into a community.

My working experience in bottle shops has taken me to two very different communities, Beecroft and Ermington. Beecroft, in Sydney’s north, is an extremely pleasant suburb. It’s graced by leafy streets and beautiful houses. Unlike many suburbs of Sydney whose character has been weakened by the long-term presence of a supermarket, Beecroft had retained its ‘village’ character, before a Woolworths finally opened in the summer of 2017/2018. According to the most recent census data, Beecroft has a median age of 43, 5 years older than the national average, and a median weekly household income of $2,598. 64.8% of its residents were born in Australia, with other common birthplaces including China, England, Hong Kong, and India. In short, Beecroft has a relatively rich, white, and old population.

The tastes of the Beecroft locals heavily lean towards wine, the average bottle probably going for around a comfortable $15. There were plenty of beer drinkers, but by and large the RTD’s (Ready To Drink beverages), and the goon, were left untouched.

Ermington, located about nine kilometres south of Beecroft, is an entirely different world.

Here the median age is 37, and the median weekly household income is $1,620. 58.1% of its residents were born in Australia, lower than the national average of 66.7%. China, Korea, Lebanon, England, and India make up some of the most common places of birth outside of Australia. Ermington also features a not insignificant number of Indigenous residents, at 1.2% of the population. Overall, the statistics suggest that in general Ermington is less well off, poorer educated, younger, but more culturally diverse than its counterpart Beecroft.

Situated next to a busy main road, on a shopping strip with possibly one of the most diabolical carparks in Sydney, is the local bottle shop. Locals’ taste in alcohol is a fair bit different to that of Beecroft. Less in the realm of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and more in favour of VB long necks, cheap bottles of bourbon and scotch, 12% Woodstock Bourbon and Cokes, plenty of Cruisers, and of course, copious amounts of goon.

From behind the counter I get a perfect view down the street of all that is happening in this action-packed neighbourhood, much of which spills into the bottle shop. People from out of area often remark about how our spirits are behind lock and key, one of a couple of police mandated measures designed to reduce theft in our store. Although it’s probably a bit over the top, it goes to show that Ermington, or ‘Ermo,’ is a bit of an interesting place.

As far as customer interactions go, there’s been a few doozies.

At the tame end of the spectrum we’ve had customers walk all the way up from the pub down the road, schooner in hand, to stock up for the rest of the evening. Our application of usual RSA laws in this situation, and in many others, has been questionable. Another memorable experience occurred when I was counting the cash reserve in the safe, and an intoxicated middle age man told me in no uncertain terms that “ya better lock that up mate, if some young fella saw that open, he’ll rob you. In fact, when I was young I robbed a few places around here. Wouldn’t do that no more though.”

Possibly the worst customer interaction came pretty early on in my time there. A bloke had put down his shopping when entering the store and left without it. A few minutes later as I was stacking shelves a good 5 metres away from his bags, the bloke returned, now clearly angry with everyone but himself, and shouted “You better not have touched my shopping!”

“Nah, mate I definitely haven’t,” I replied.

This seemed to enrage him even further, backing out of the store, but not without the parting words of “You fucking better not have touched my bags you cunt, or I’ll fucking kill ya.” Lovely.

A colleague had a similar experience with a nutter who gave him a Kinder Surprise egg, told him to keep it for him and give it to him later because he “likes surprises.” Months later, he returned wondering whether his surprise was still coming. The egg had long ago been thrown in the bin, and my dumbfounded colleague struggling to remember the initial interaction at all, blamed our manager for throwing it out. To this, the nutter replied with markedly similar phrasing to my harasser, that he’d “knock your block off, if you’ve eaten my Kinder-Surprise.” Yep.

Unfortunately for a fair few locals, a mix of poor life circumstances, mental health issues, and drug and alcohol abuse, leads them down a path where this becomes normal behaviour for them. In comparison, I could count the number of negative customer interactions with Beecroft locals on one hand. Generally, everyone was exceedingly polite and friendly but you can’t tell a lot about a person by their polite manners alone.

People in Ermington are genuinely good people. Far more than Beecroft, Ermington locals seem to be interested in me as a person. This difference is particularly pronounced amongst the younger customers. I’ll admit there are fewer young people in Beecroft in general, but I can only remember maybe two young guys who seemed like they actually gave a fuck about how my day was going. In contrast, in Ermo there are loads of young customers who I’m always happy to see. There’s even one dead-set legend who’s given me encouragement about uni, eager to see me do well when he has regrets about not doing better at school and pursuing further education.

Moreover, Ermington locals are bloody honest. Sure, their overall life situations might be a little dire, their family problems evident, their past histories sketchy, and their alcoholism unhealthy, but there is a humility and honesty about their situations which is refreshing and inspiring.

What’s even more inspiring is the multicultural society that exists in this pocket of Western Sydney. Often, this dynamic causes me slight inconveniences as cross-cultural differences in shopping etiquette become apparent. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to answer the question “How much is this?” when the price label is literally right there, or the occasional customer trying to haggle on price. It also gives me moments of genuine joy about how damn good Australia is. Like when I helped an elderly Middle-Eastern man staring blankly at our beer fridges. In broken English he explained to me that he had just arrived in Australia and coming from a country where alcohol is prohibited, was about to purchase his first beer.

That feeling of inspiration strikes more regularly just from seeing recent immigrants making their lives in Australia. Who knows what they might think of the drug and alcohol abuse that is sometimes evident on Ermington’s humble shopping strip, but they seem relatively unperturbed, happy to have the opportunity to be re-united with family, or to start a new life in Australia.

In Beecroft and Ermington, we have two different microcosms of Australia. One is very wealthy, very white, very quaint, but ultimately uninspiring. The other is chaotic, diverse, rough around the edges, and always entertaining. I know which one I prefer.