hopetoun tea room
(Image: Flavours of Melbourne)

When news came through on Tuesday that Melbourne’s iconic Hopetoun Tea Rooms had gone into administration, the most pained reaction I saw was, separately, from three actual Marxists — grizzled veterans of the demonstration and the trestle table.

I recalled taking tea there with one, decades ago, when the place was still just an old, old cafe. We argued about Kronstadt or something as lavender-haired ladies rehearsed tennis club gossip from the ’50s at nearby tables, and the cakes floated by on three-tiered silver trays.

By the end of the morning we were both essentially stoned on sugar, like nuns at a once-yearly convent high tea.

The Hopetoun can’t be allowed to die, though not just because it serves as a venue for socialist debate and its troubles are a call to arms of sorts, ridiculous as that sentence just looked.

The place, a tea shop of green flock wallpaper, marbled tables and glittering trays of creamy extravaganzas, opened in Melbourne in 1904. It is the last example of that once-ubiquitous hospo venue: the tea shop and luncheon room, the sort of place that predated the modern cafe by a couple of decades (the cafe was pretty much introduced to Australia by Greeks, in the 1910s).

The serving of its pinwheel sandwiches — spirals of buttered bread lined with ham and mustard, asparagus and the like — go back into the mists of time. For decades, the place had mouldered slowly on, a feature of Melbourne’s delicious noble rot of the ’70s and ’80s, when one could roam dying cafes from 7am until midnight.

Its clientele appeared to be ageing debs, clinking china, as they reminisced about part-time modelling work and meeting here in white gloves in the ’50s, and complaining about their retired-surgeon husbands. When they had all gone, the place had a problem.

Ten years ago it was sold and the new owners marketed it as a tourist experience, with wild success. Nothing was more gob smacking to me, coming back to Melbourne, than to see a queue of tourists from all corners of the world lined up at its doors waiting for their half-hour of wielding the cake fork.

That demand encouraged the new owners to try and convert part of the Block Arcade basement (which once held the workshops of the arcade’s tailors’ shops) to extra dining space. This got into legal tangles, and the owners are now left with a $1.5 million bill, which appears to be the kicker in their COVID-induced financial crisis.

Maybe they needed the extra space, maybe they got greedy, who knows. But the plain fact is that a city like Melbourne can’t let something like the Hopetoun Tea Rooms die, and still retain its soul.

The COVID-19 crisis is threatening to take a lot of iconic businesses to the wall, and it’s an invitation to think about how we value what we value as the world shifts.

Consider this paradox:

Many people, hearing of the demise of a beloved place like the Hopetoun, would feel a certain dismay at its possible passing, yet also a sense of its inevitability.

At the same time they would see it as natural and inevitable that state money should be sunk into big faceless banks, dying airlines, etc, even if it’s clear we’d never get it back.

The money, or even just a rates or tax suspension that would keep a place like the Hopetoun afloat, is a mere mille-feuilles compared to big corporations’ predators banquet. Yet the proposition is not an easy sell.

Why? The immediate answer would be that things come and go all the time. But that answer is only half-right. In our era, such decades-old quirky little places — the uniqueness of a city — go, but only to be replaced by franchise chains or short-term outfits that last for a year or so and then vanish, and have little connection with our history.

We are thus losing a great deal of what tied us to what we were. The frequent reaction to such is to shrug one’s shoulders and say “that’s life”.

The question once again is: why? Why is that life? Because a certain regime of capital says so? To agree to that is to simply internalise the nihilism of capitalism, its structural cynicism, which knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Why not advance a simpler ethic more akin to the hybrid, muddle-along process we apply to the loves and enthusiasms of our personal lives? If something’s worth keeping, we find a way to do it, and abstract principle is revealed as a fetishism.

If something like the Hopetoun says that the small decadence of a caramel eclair is a good thing, why not generalise that principle? In the case of the Hopetoun and other shops affected by COVID-19, local councils and the state government should set up an iconic businesses support fund that can be tapped if their viability is threatened in a way it might otherwise not have been.

There’s nothing fair about such a proposal, which should operate at pure ministerial or council discretion; one cafe can be denied, another next door be saved.

I would have said that a far from complete list of eligible places in the Melbourne CBD would include: Pellegrini’s, the Paperback Bookshop, the Hill of Content bookshop, Florentino’s, the Shark Fin Inn, the Exford Hotel (last old pub in the CBD), Stalactites and Tsindos Greek bistro (the last places of old Lonsdale St Greektown), The Basement Discs (last CBD record store), City Basement Secondhand books, Touch of Paris hairdressers in the subterranean Campbell Arcade (also under threat), the black and white foto booth on Flinders st, the Hopetoun, the Crazy Horse adult cinema (might be some pushback on that), and a few others. My, how thin it has all got, what’s left of us.

Other councils could do the same, and other cities. I’m sure Sydney could rustle up two or three things more than 15 years old. I’d also make a plea to restore the Golden Tower red vinyl cafe late of Swanston st, Gaslight records and its naked shopping day, and the Met Zone 3 ticketing area, but those are battles for another time. 

For the moment, let’s try and hang on to what we’ve got. There is an obvious economic tourism argument to be made — Melbourne’s rise from non-destination to tourist mecca over three decades has occurred only because we have retained the richness and variety of urban living that thousands of cities have lost — but I wanted to make the argument from life first and foremost.

The elegant arabesques of a piled-high meringue matter as much to a culture as the stone buttresses of a cathedral. Indeed, they’re the same thing. Only the materials differ.

Forget all that creative destruction crap. Ask of yourself what you love and then find a way to keep it, and that is pretty much all of douceur de vivre.