Caras Emporium at 189 Lonsdale, mid-morning on a winter’s day, is reminiscent of a store on a busy street in Athens. The sun penetrates the shop windows despite the multi-storey monolith opposite. Greek music plays incessantly from the moment the store opens. The merchandise ranges from plaster cast busts and statuettes of the ancients to icons of popular saints, and from flags of Greek soccer clubs to posters of Zeus and his fellow gods on Mount Olympus.
There are souvenir mugs, t-shirts, framed photos of the islands, religious items, backgammon boards, Greek newspapers, journals and dictionaries, and CDs and DVDs featuring performers of the contemporary Greek music scene.
Caras Music was founded around 1961 by Dimitris Caras, an enterprising immigrant from the island of Lefkada who arrived in Melbourne in 1959. The store has been located in various guises and addresses on Lonsdale Street for the past 50 years. It is now back at its original address at 189. The enterprise has variously operated as Caras Music, Caras Emporium, and Caras Tours, a travel agency that specialises in journeys to Greece and throughout the Mediterranean.
The enterprise began as a music store, and as a vendor of Greek newspapers. In the early years the newspapers were obtained from the Salapatas brothers, who until the mid ’60s were based in Sydney. Much of the Greek music was pressed locally, with the rights obtained from the homeland. In time the business expanded and extended its concerns into a range of Greek imports. The Salapatas brothers set up their own store on Lonsdale Street in the mid-1960s, and the two businesses sold an expanding range of Greek objects, alongside the music and popular culture of contemporary Greece.
Like most of the surviving Greek businesses along the Lonsdale Street strip, Caras has been passed on to a new generation – from ‘Jimmy’ the founder, to his son Spiro, who runs the emporium with great bravado, and with a strong connection to the homeland.
Born on the island of Lesbos, the birthplace of his mother, Spiro arrived in Melbourne in 1961, at the age of three. He was brought over by his father who had preceded his family several years earlier. Spiro describes his father as ‘the Richard Branson of his time, an entrepreneur who saw an opportunity and grabbed his chance.’ He was of that determined generation of immigrants willing to gamble on a new venture. One of his ambitious schemes with Caras Tours was to charter planeloads of Greeks eager to revisit the homeland.
‘I never felt like a migrant when I was growing up,’ says Spiro. ‘Throughout the ’70s till the ’80s, I was surrounded by a vibrant Greek Community in Lonsdale Street. Everyone would come here on weekends. I grew up feeling fully at home.’ Paradoxically, Spiro says he now feels like a migrant for the first time, since the decline of Greek Lonsdale Street from its heyday two decades ago.
We sit over coffee in the small back room beneath the mezzanine, a space that resembles a fisherman’s shack. Spiro enthuses about Greek music, its universal quality and its creative adaptations of traditional forms. ‘Caras Emporium is the oldest continuous Greek business in Lonsdale Street,’ he asserts, although International Cakes may challenge that claim.
‘We’re selling nostalgia more than anything,’ he says. ‘You walk through the door and it feels like Greece. For younger people it is a chance to step into the Plaka and the Monastiraki district. We are like a time warp, representing the Australian Greek community of the past, with a modern twist.’
Spiro comes and goes between Greece and Australia, and his two bases, Melbourne and Athens. He says he ‘can’t decide where to live.’ But then adds, ‘my generation lives in the modern age. Unlike our immigrant parents, we can come and go with ease. We don’t have to deal with the problem in the way they had to, in the pre-jet age.’ The question is, how to keep the Greek precinct going: how to endure. Echoing a sentiment expressed by fellow Greek business owners in the precinct, Spiro says, ‘we need a reason for people to keep coming here. And that means coming to see each other.’
Many customers are Greeks from interstate, in search of souvenirs, CDs and objects not easily obtained at home. ‘The Greek core is still here,’ he says, ‘and these few businesses are the survivors. But we need more vision and energy from the community if we are to continue staying afloat. And we need more space.’
Stories from the Heart of Melbourne, a book commissioned by the City of Melbourne and written by Dr Arnold Zable and Dr Sophie Couchman. The stories are based on research, and information provided by interviewees. The book is available to borrow from City of Melbourne libraries.