Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
One never knows quite what to expect when visiting the “Red Shed,” in Kangaroo Valley. One could be met with anything from a therapy session, a philosophical discussion, a weather report, a tutorial on the Australian jazz scene, news about the death of a much loved local, ruminations about the latest book club choice, a heated theological debate, a birth announcement, trivia night dissections and scandals, oh, and of course, one could get advise on chook feeds, fencing, plumbing and so much more!
The Red Shed is the local rural supply store in Kangaroo Valley Australia. Kangaroo Valley has a population of about 800 and is 2 hours south of Sydney. The Red Shed is run and owned by John Bacon and his partner Helen Gelberman. Their two teenage sons can also be found lugging bags of chaff and chook food, or answering the phone with their trademark exceptional phone manner, doing their bit for the family business.
When John met Helen in inner city Sydney 20 years ago, this quirky, unlikely pair took some time to amalgamate. Helen’s orthodox Jewish family accepted John and overlooked the fact that he was a) not Jewish and b) had the most heinously indigestible name of “Bacon.”
John’s background in teaching agriculture, and Helen’s degree in social work are the perfect combination for this small town business. The pair are creative and unconventional, and have an interesting mix of John’s self effacing, dark, witty British humour, and Helen’s special brand of Sydney western suburbs Jewish humour. Needless to say, when you walk into the Red Shed, you could well be either on the set of Black Adder or Seinfeld, depending on who is working that day.
One day I walked into the Red Shed to find John all dressed in a coat and tie (not his usual work wear). “Where are you off to today?” I enquired.
“Off to a funeral. Do you know Brenda Smyth-King? She died you know!” Stated John In a ‘John Cleesean’ way that, despite the sadness of the situation, made me laugh. Unfortunately, John had not noticed the mousy older lady who was browsing behind the isle containing the cattle horse and dog worming products. Clearly this woman did know the woman of whom John spoke, because a cry went out from behind the shelf as she heard the news of the funeral. We had to sit her down and comfort her!
On another occasion, John was proudly reporting that his dog ‘Luna,” a very cute but scruffy looking terrier, had been “bonking herself silly” for two weeks with the “bitsa” down the road. He described the coupling as being like Pippa Middleton having it on with Chopper Reid! I just couldn’t shake that repulsive image from my head for quite some time!
In yet another incident, my neighbour (let’s just call him ‘captain’) went into the Red Shed with his rather conservative father, who was visiting for the weekend, to buy something rather innocuous, like a packet of seeds. As they entered, Helen and a friend were having a rather ebullient and animated discussion about the book “Fifty shades of Grey”. So spirited was their discussion, that Helen didn’t notice my neighbour enter the shop, nor did she notice his father walk around behind THAT isle (containing the worming products). When Helen caught sight of Captain, he was dragged into the conversation. “Captain, what do you think of using whips in the bedroom? I can’t imagine you being the whip type! Have you read this book? (thrusting the book under Captain’s nose) You know, since this book came out, we have sold more whips and riding crops that we ever have before!”
Captain looked at Helen dumbfound……”Um….er….” At this stage, Captain’s no- nonsense father walked out from behind the isle with a wry smile on his face, into Helen’s view. “Helen, this is my father George.” It was Helens turn to blush – a very rare thing indeed!
When one local rang the National Parks and Wildlife service because there was a pig running down the main street of Kangaroo Valley, the ranger knew to go straight to the Red Shed to find out who owned the pig. “Oh yes, that would be the Mead’s pet pig, they just live up in Jenanter Drive.” The pig was safely returned!
The elevated front counter of the Red Shed is crammed full of he most unusual collection of curios, both practical and whimsical. This seems to be an ever-changing assortment. At the moment, the collection includes: some fossils, duck eggs for sale, some costume jewelry, local olive oil, maps, the ever present crown shaped china bowl full of chewy lollies, an antique meat mincer, the most grotesquely large model of a Queensland tick and a blue antique bottle with a brass lid which contains … John looks around elusively as he whispers “magic beads.” “What else do you have behind that counter?” I query. From behind the counter comes a whole new collection. A mirror that laughs when you look at it, a collection of plastic models from “the lord of the Rings”, and a deck of “ topless French beauties” playing cards (circa 1970).
Upstairs amongst the gumboots and barrels of seed, the antiques can be found – not just your run-of-the-mill antiques, but unusual pieces including a monkey in a cage who whistles as you pass by, for a dollar, it will tell you joke.
Seasonally, pigs, ducks and chooks are for sale. Recently, Luna’s 11 puppies were proudly displayed for sale. Despite the fact they were the progeny of that rather unusual coupling, the puppies were all adorable. Out the back, tomatoes, potatoes and foxglove have lankily self-seeded out of an old concrete laundry tub amongst the wooden stakes, bags of manure and sugarcane mulch. John has built a range of characteristically outré chook sheds, which are displayed in the yard … “dream home for the inner city chook” the sign of one displays.
Out the front, a fecund raised veggie patch flourishes for anyone passing who feels like munching on a fresh snow pea, or needs a bunch of English spinach for dinner.
If you want to know about anything that is going on in Kangaroo valley or the best person to do some fencing, plumbing, removing a possum from a wall cavity, what bait to use to catch bass in the Kangaroo River, or even where the next book club drinks and meeting is, John or Helen will know. It may not be in the Kangaroo Valley tourist brochures and you might think it odd to make a trip to the Red Shed rural supply store just for a look, but I would encourage any visitor to Kangaroo Valley, to make sure that a trip to the Red Shed is on their itinerary, they are sure to have an interesting experience!