Recreating the Social Benefits of a Corner Store in South Blackheath

Libby Bleakley enjoying a break on Day One at Molly’s (Lis Bastian)

By Lis Bastian

I find myself feeling nostalgic when I think of the corner stores I grew up with. The ones I knew as a child have long-since vanished, but that nostalgia was delightfully triggered last week when I popped by to check out ‘Molly’, a vintage style van that’s just started serving coffee, drinks, snacks and homemade light meals from 71 Evans Lookout Rd Blackheath.

Molly is the latest venture of local Rotarian, former UN Peacekeeper, and passionate community builder, Libby Bleakley.

Libby’s dream is to recreate the social benefits of the corner stores she also grew up with, but now in her neck of Blackheath – on the street farthest from the Village centre. “We want it to be something for locals on this end of town with hot chocolates for kids and wholesome organic and homegrown meals, including some alternate products like Suzy Spoon’s Vegetarian Butcher sausages and miso soup made by a Japanese family at Carriageworks. I love the thought of going back in time to when community looked after each other,” she says.

Homemade, homegrown and alternate vegetarian meals and snacks (Lis Bastian)

Having worked with remote aboriginal communities, and in war-torn Timor Leste and Sudan, and having entered the police force to support women whose lives were threatened by domestic violence, as hers had been, Libby knows more than most just how important it is to build and protect the social fabric of our communities. And to have safe places where people of all ages can congregate.

Libby on deployment in Timor Leste (supplied)

Molly’s is an extension of Libby’s ‘Roasters with Altitude’ social enterprise which raises funds to run a Learning Centre she set up in Timor Leste after being stationed there as a peacekeeper with the Australian Federal Police for three years. The Timor Learning Centre, which employs Timorese staff, has a gym, women’s sewing centre, English language school, vegetable gardens and residences. It has successfully built the strong social foundations that bring community together and lead to a reduction in crime and violence. Fundraising continues for the ongoing operation of the Learning Centre as a RAWCS project (the Rotary Australia World Community Service) under the Rotary Club of Blackheath.

Libby roasting the coffee for Roasters with Altitude at Evans Lookout Rd (Lis Bastian)

Libby has been air roasting Australian, Timorese and other ethically grown coffees from around the world at her Blackheath home for the last six years. Until now, this coffee has been mostly sold at fundraising events or at the Carriageworks Farmers Markets in Sydney. You can now also purchase Roasters with Altitude coffee at Molly’s, where you can choose from a variety of blends.

Freshly roasted coffee (Lis Bastian)

I visited within hours of Molly’s opening, but as soon as Libby outlined her vision I could see that Molly was destined to be more than a ‘coffee cart’.

She spoke of using and sharing produce from her permaculture garden, including the honey from her bees. She was keen to hear from neighbours about what they’d like to see there, and was already imagining a place where people could drop off surplus lemons, plums, herbs or homegrown veg.

Some of Libby’s homegrown veges in her permaculture garden (Libby Bleakley)

Libby’s bee hives (Lis Bastian)

After describing Molly’s to my husband, he also popped in a few hours later and brought back two vegan hot dogs with red sauerkraut for our lunch. And we weren’t the only ones sampling what Molly’s had to offer. Neighbours, including children, had already begun dropping in to introduce themselves and to enjoy this new communal space within walking distance of their homes.

Corner stores were the one place my sister and I were allowed to go unaccompanied as young children. They were close by, the single shop sitting snugly in amongst our homes, and everyone knew us. Our mum would send us there to pick up ‘essentials’ (papers, milk, missing ingredients for dinner, or cigarettes) and we were allowed to ‘spend the change’ … on lollies and comic books. We LOVED our corner store!

Sadly, locally-owned corner stores, which kept money circulating in communities, began disappearing in the 80’s – replaced by large supermarkets and service stations which were often owned by large corporations that drained profits from communities. When Sunday trading began in 1991, followed a few years later by the deregulation of retail-trading hours, corner stores struggled to compete with the longer opening hours and cheaper prices these businesses offered.

The first ‘corner store’ I knew was in Leppington, and it was owned by my grandparents who’d recently migrated to Australia. It helped them connect to their new community (Family Album)

Like my grandparents’ corner store, Molly’s is also creating employment and an opportunity for a migrant couple to connect to their adopted community. Young Indonesian couple, Hideya and Claire, are the baristas at Molly’s. After having worked as a barista in Sydney, Hideya has been surprised by the community in Blackheath:

“All the locals are really friendly,” he says. “It’s not like Sydney, which is really fast-paced. Here they come and order, and hang around, and we have conversations. We’re getting to know each other.”

Hideya and Libby making coffees (Kate Bell)

We’re fortunate to live in a village with lots of small locally-owned businesses. We know many of the shopkeepers by name and popping into the shops inevitably means you’ll bump into someone you know. But, even in a village of less than 4.5 K people, it’s not always that easy to get to know your immediate neighbours. That’s where corner stores played an important role – providing a pivotal gathering point for communities.

Molly’s is an open invitation to connect. She sits in the driveway of the gorgeous cottage Libby built years ago when she moved to Blackheath to become a police officer at Katoomba Police Station.

Turning a driveway into a communal space (Kate Bell)

Libby beams as a young family arrives and sits at one of the tables she’s set up in her driveway: “I love community, I love people, and I like to make a difference. I think everyone’s got something they can contribute to community, no matter how small.”

After a lifetime of making a difference Libby is creating yet another space for community to meet up and do the same.

My delightful lunch companions! (Lis Bastian)

On my second visit I’m pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying lunch with a yoga teacher from Sydney, a social work student who works in child protection, the retiring District Governor of Rotary who created HUFF (Heads Up for Fire or Any Emergency), Libby, and my husband who didn’t need to be asked twice to return.

Ensuring as much as possible is recycled or composted (Lis Bastian)

We find ourselves discussing the recyclable packaging, Libby’s composting system, and a range of possibilities for the future as we, and Mina’s dog, enjoy sitting in the sun eating nachos and getting to know one another.

Libby’s plan is working.

You can follow on Insta at @molly_cafecart or @roasterswithaltitude

A dog-friendly space (supplied).

This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

About Lis Bastian

Lis Bastian is the Senior Lead for Blue Mountains City Council’s Planetary Health Initiative. She is the editor of the Local News Platforms and has been a writer, editor, news presenter and teacher/lecturer covering both cultural and environmental issues for over 30 years. She has been pioneering Solutions/Constructive Journalism in Australia since 2012.

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