SFS From the Outside: The Corner Shop Guy

A brief trip around Sydney Film School during the editing period reveals a lot; mostly that the diet of editing students is high in saturated fats, and cheap carbohydrates. But from where do all of those red bull cans and instant noodles come?

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The Waterloo Mixed Business is a small corner shop, situated on the corner of Cope Street and Raglan Street. At a glance, it appears to be your run-of-the-mill corner shop. They’re a dime a dozen.

Maher Al-Sheik runs the corner shop and is all too aware of how important it is to the students during the long days and nights of production.

“Every year they are coming. The students from overseas – Sweden, Holland, Brazil – they’re all coming here. Especially when they work in the night.”

I asked him what the students’ most commonly purchased item is.

“Drinks, chocolate and smokes.”

In an essay entitled “The Corner Store: A Metaphor for Evolving Communities”, Sydney Film School’s own Dr. John Buckmaster explores the numerous ways in which Maher’s store (and two other local businesses) have come to represent the dichotomy of “old” and “new” Waterloo-Redfern (i.e. the socially mobile, middle class “new” and the traditionally socially and economically disadvantaged “old”).

He writes:

The corner store is not only a place – it is a nexus where these two groups ‘meet’ when using its’ services… The two groups see that neither is entirely foreign from the other as individual persons… The bringing together of these two groups in this routine setting demonstrates that the very identity of the community itself is constituted by their co-existence

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It would be easy to overstate the importance of the school to the corner shop – the students do account for a decent chunk of its customer base – but the corner shop serves far more than a few hungry students.

The total number of Redfern-Waterloo residents in public housing – according to figures quoted in Dr. John’s essay – is 6017. Of that number, 91% are on unemployment benefits and the average weekly wage for these folks is significantly less than $337.

The truth is, Maher has made his business integral to the local community by keeping consistently low prices and forming relationships with most – if not all – of his loyal customers.

I ask him why, in the three-and-a-half years I’ve known him, he’s never once put his prices up.

“All the people here have no money – and all of the same customers come here. They are my friends and they come every day. If I sell [a     can of soft drink] at one dollar, I have forty per cent profit. Good or no?”

I put it to him that, as other business’ do, he could sell at two dollars, and make a higher profit.

“But I have plenty of customers. They come from everywhere. If I have a profit, why shouldn’t I sell cheap?”

This shows a clear sense of duty to the local community that current and future students of SFS would do well to replicate – particularly documentary students and those looking to shoot films in the local area.

As a student, I myself became familiar with the faces of locals that still hang around on the corner outside the shop. The locals know Maher well and each has their own unique brand of banter with him – as do each of the students that frequent the shop.

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So what does Maher make of the school?

“It’s a good school – all the teachers and students are friends. It’s very good. I can see it developing. Year after year, more students, more classes. I go into the building sometimes and I can see the difference. The school five years ago and now; now it’s much better.”

Then he adds – with a cheeky smile:

“The Australians still don’t come as often. They don’t spend as much money.”

Whilst I remain a little skeptical on that point, there can be little doubt that few places in the Waterloo area better reflect the ethos of ‘Courage, Curiosity, Compassion’ than Maher and his small shop. He isn’t a hero and his shop isn’t glamorous, it’s just a glimpse of the right stuff.”

T O M   E A R L S

Dr. John’s essay will soon be available on Amazon for Kindle – watch this space!

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