Brisbane’s entrepreneurs get Wise and stick to tradition.

My head was full and I needed a break. I had been working so hard and had been so focused that I had to take some time out to switch off. I’m no good at sitting in front on the box for hours on end, I need something to aim at, something to complete. Actively looking for work, preparing the house for sale and unsuccessfully playing with ideas for articles to write had bummed me out. I needed something different.

I dropped my daughter off at daycare and caught the first bus in to Brisbane. I’d not been in the city for ages, and when I had I’d rushed around to complete my errands and gone home again. I used to work at Rocklea where the nearest shop was Marty’s Roast Joint or a couple of servos. The site I work on looked like a Kubrick stage set, light grey and blinding from the sun’s reflection, no discernible thought for beauty in the corrugated building we worked in. And no discernible acknowledgement of civilisation, I didn’t even have windows in my office.

But today I was ready for an all day trip. I had a fully charged camera, a notebook, some water and a banana. Upon reaching the Cultural Centre I wandered over to the museum and gallery, which I found didn’t open for another 45 minutes. Not a problem. I moseyed over the bridge, down Queen Street mall taking photos along the way, and said hello to the Aboriginal didgeridoo player, who once told my niece he was 5,000 years old.

Brisbane is a clean, new looking city, going forward to a bright future, with its lawns neatly manicured and flowers in bloom.  But the modern agenda was covering the old, colonial look. Developers have torn a lot of it down in its quest to create a new metropolis to rival Sydney and Melbourne. The two story colonial buildings disfigured with lighting rigs and Venetian shades allowing Saturday afternoon shoppers to watch kids dancing or models strutting and not feel the heat, but not allowing visitors to see the old, traditional building which gives Brisbane its historical flavour. That annoys me.

Unfortunately there’s no model for cities like Brisbane to follow, advice on how to grow, infrastructure sensibilities and a vision further ahead than Christmas. Brisbane is in a race to catch up, to be Paris or London. But if you look closely at these cities, the old is still there. Amongst the Gherkins and the Shards there are old buildings, St. Paul’s still stands proud today. But those in the Queensland capital are being smothered by new tower blocks.

New towers rising high with new money, pushing out and ignoring the aged buildings built with immigrant and criminal hands from old money. The churches seem to be clinging on to city centre residence in the face of a new religion, where money and modernity is the saviour not the Son of God.

I took a left off the mall and decided to walk in the less trodden path around Brisbane. There had to be some parts of the city I’d made home for almost a decade that I didn’t know of or hadn’t seen, something to engage my thoughts of heritage and history.

Having passed skyscraping offices casting shadows down upon two churches on Ann Street, I paused to take a look at the School of Art. I noticed it was now a coffee shop. It was time for morning tea so I walked up the steps and saw the old building looking so different from the gleaming, modern look of The Coffee Club or the faux homely feel of Starbucks.

Bleeding Heart is more than a café, once I’d walked inside I could see that it offered something far and above a skinny latte with no sugar but extra cream and sprinkles for the office girl tottering on high heels and balancing some enormous sunnies on her made up face.

The School of Art now houses an event space, a gallery and a gift shop to go along with the Bleeding Heart Café. Opening in the autumn of 2008, serving organic and fair trade teas and coffees, it ran with “Using our powers for good, not evil,” as a tagline.

As an initiative of the Wise Foundation, which believes that communities should have an opportunity to be economically independent via business, Bleeding Heart aims to bring people together. There’s a ‘profit for purpose’ art gallery and a gift store for local artisans, and all profits contribute to charitable and community enterprise.

Apart from the odd leather couch the interior of the building still looks minutes away from having boys with short back and sides chasing girls with pigtails and wearing floral dresses singing ‘God Save The King.’ In a city centre with the focus on moving forward, this building has stood still. But as I sat with my flat white I had no idea of the thinking behind the enterprise, it was just a beautiful looking building, quiet and cool on a very warm spring day.

Soon I was on my way looking for a tucked away surprise. I meandered past the Palace Backpackers, a great old building showing grand colonial Brisbane with its ornate verandas, down to Central Station and its green patina decoration, both buildings dwarfed by modern skyscrapers, then around to the Botanic Gardens in preparation for Parklife. The Gardens are quiet harbour away from the noisy ships being guided by captains of industry, where the local chatter is bird call and not finance.

One item on my agenda was to get my shoes polished. I’d seen an advert in a free guide about Buffed shoe shining and as I love my shoes I thought I’d seek this out. Not thinking, I’d put on a black pair to go out in this morning so had change them at the last minute so I could get a brown pair done, nearly missing my bus in the process.

I found the Buffed chair tucked under the shade of the Rio Tinto building on Albert Street. The gentlemen asked if I had been looking for a shoeshine, I said I had because I’d read about it and then asked him more about the service.

Blair had been trained in how to shine shoes and gained the know-how of the trade through a course at the School of Art through the Wise Foundation. The coincidence then dawned on me, “Oh, at Bleeding Heart?” I inquired. It seems the Wise Foundation are very busy behind the guises of Buffed and Bleeding Heart, helping those who through unstable health or by not possessing the skills needed to sustain full time permanent role in today’s workplace.

After the course, word had it that a building was going to be located for the Buffers, but it failed to come through and Brisbane’s shoes were dull for foreseeable future. Then Blair got a call and he was on his way to Albert Street on a cold May morning.

But the future didn’t look as shiny as my shoes were getting. Blair explained how it was hard to get Australian men into visiting Buffed, at one point free coffees drew the patrons. But as a business proposition it wasn’t working, even if some clever people returned over several days wearing a different pair of shoes.

He wondered if it’s the Australian upbringing. Americans have had shoe shine boys for years and it is well known that Europeans look after their shoes. It was my father’s household chore growing up to clean the family shoes, something he passed on to me. Out to impress him, I told my father about a pair of black cowboy boots I pestered him for when I was 15 or 16 and that having been polished and repaired over the years they were still going over 20 years later. “I should bloody think so,” said the ever-frugal Yorkshireman.

It is starting to take hold in Brisbane though, Sydney and Melbourne were slow to start too, but Blair is worried that Queensland habits may affect his client numbers, “The warmer weather will bring the thongs out, a Queensland way of life. It’ll be hard to change that attitude.” After 14 weeks into his Buffed franchise there is no precedent for a drop off, but the city centre job cuts do present a real and current danger of fewer returning clients and random passers by.

Away from the gleaming Wintergardens and Queens Plaza, I found a Brisbane making a difference on a personal level. The Wise Foundation, with the aid of their supporters, are getting Brisbanites back to work, and not just in a small cubical with a PC and a phone dealing with tedious clients, sandwiched between clocking in and out. There are people with smiles on their faces serving coffee in an event space that dates back to 1865 or offering traditional shoe care.

This difference is a warmer, more personal, even cosier difference. It may not be sparkly, expensive, with modern glass and steel, rushed and high powered, but it doesn’t need to be. There is no reason why the traditional and the modern can’t live together and give Brisbane what it needs to become a world-class city. But the Wise Foundation are offering a chance for little, traditional businesses to grow, with a smile and a personal connection, which sits along side Gordon Gekko and Donald Trump, and I bet they’ve got shiny shoes!

As Buffed in Brisbane closes in on its first anniversary, I urge you to call in to see Blair, or any of the other Buffed men on our streets, Rick, Grant or Jimmie Jam. Not only would you be helping a small business grow, you can have five minutes chat away from your computer screen and on top of that you’ll get your shoes to look spanking. Which may help you to pull that girl in accounts. Hey! You could even take her down to Bleeding Heart for a coffee.

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5 Responses to “Brisbane’s entrepreneurs get Wise and stick to tradition.”
  1. Elise says:

    Great piece Alex. It’s so nice to view something you think you know well through someone else’s eyes.

    • Thanks, Elise. As residents we miss so much of Brisbane by not knowing all that is on offer. I takes a lot of effort to find out, and luck.

      Talking to people about what they did at the weekend etc will make us aware of so many more things Brisbane, and SE Queensland, has to offer that isn’t necessarily straight from the High Street.

      I got lucky, but by walking down a different street I found something new to me and rewarding. It made me happy to find we have a building as great at the School of Art just off the Mall.

  2. Angharad Sanders says:

    Your best piece yet. Nice story too, it’s what I like about Australia x

  3. Fady says:

    Unfortunately, many of Brisbane’s historical buildings were demolished when Joh was Premier of Qld at a time when he basically got away with doing whatever the hell he pleased. In saying that, Premier Bligh also got rid of the historical Hoyts Regent Cinema so it’s not just one side of politics that ignores Brisbane’s history.

    I love Brisbane, but one of the really disappointing aspects of the city becoming more modern and progressive has been its eagerness to destroy some of its most beautiful historical icons. It’s an absolute shame, and completely unnecessary when you consider some of the world’s great cities (London, New York, Melbourne) have managed to keep their old buildings intact and stay current.

    Good article Alex :-).

    • Thanks, Fady. There is always a need to preserve the heritage of a town or city within the quest to modernise. Having old buildings should never be seen as a negative, which I think previous Brisbane think tanks have done.

      The loss of the Regents Cinema was, for me, confirmation that Bligh did not have any desire of preservation. Looking after City Hall was a poor attempt to disguise that.

      The longer I live here, the more I like Brisbane. But I have to go in search of the things I like. Much of those past times, places, or events should be more widely advertised. Numbers will then increase and hopefully they’ll flourish. After all, they are not taking me away from a poncy event (which Brisbane does push) as I wouldn’t be going anyway.

      Variety will make Brisbane what it aims to be.

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