8 November 2022

'Catwalks and Elvis days': Sole survivor reflects on 25 years of Griffith's first mall

| Oliver Jacques
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Woman next to dresses

Liz Purtell reflects on her quarter century in retail. Photo: Oliver Jacques.

It was 25 years ago that Griffith’s first shopping mall, Griffin Plaza, opened on an old cannery site at the corner of Crossing and Yambil streets.

Only one staffer who was there on the first day in 1997 still works at the Plaza today – Liz Purtell, manager of women’s clothing store Autograph.

It was a big thing for a small country town to have its own mall, and Ms Purtell remembers the drama of the inaugural day.

“It was so exciting … I remember the front door was full of people waiting and when they opened it they all came pouring in. There were heaps of people who wondered in,” she said.

Shoppers outside store

Griffin Plaza opening day in 1997. Photo: Griffith Genealogical and Historical Society.

Back then, Ms Purtell worked at what was called Millers clothing store.

“We were here as Millers for about 15 years, then Millers moved up the street and we became Autograph, which was part of the same company … I’ve seen lots of things come and go but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done.”

Before the internet took off, the late 1990s and early 2000s were the heyday of retail. At times, shopping was a carnival-like event for the whole family.

“We used to have dress-up days, fashion parades, and an Elvis day where we’d all dress up and have Elvis turn up in the store before he left the building. We all wore rock ‘n’ roll skirts and had big posters. The Olympic torch even came into the store in 2000.

“Out the front we would have a catwalk and customers would be our models.”

READ ALSO Griffith grandma celebrates 40 years of rocking aged care homes

In a sign of the volatility of the retail industry, no other store that was there on the Plaza’s opening day remains today, save for the Coles supermarket. Donut King, the third surviving original store, closed in March this year.

Shopping centre car park

Griffin Plaza on its opening day, when a park space was hard to come by. Photo: Griffith Genealogical and Historical Society.

While online shopping has taken its toll on physical retail stores and staff, Ms Purtell says there should always be a place for shops such as hers.

“There are customers who tell me I’m never going to shop online because I want to feel it, I want to try it on,” she said.

“[When you shop] online you think it’s going to look right but it’s not. The advantage we offer is you can return it in the store and we can give you back your money or exchange it.”

Ms Purtell is part of the Ceccato family, pioneers of Griffith who have a special place in the town’s history.

“My grandfather, Valentino Ceccato, helped [the legendary Griffith hermit] Valerio Ricetti a lot, he came to work on my grandfather’s farm. The original farm is still in the family today. Mum used to tell me all the stories about him.”

Mr Ricetti was a reclusive but brilliant Italian immigrant who lived in solitude at Scenic Hill for much of the period between 1929 and 1952. He built a series of rock shelters and terraced gardens to reside in, the remains of which are a major tourist attraction called Hermit’s Cave.

READ MORE Griffith’s hermit, his cave and the Scenic Hill lookout

Ms Purtell says she has no plans to retreat to her home and retire, preferring to reflect on the great times she’s had over the past quarter century.

old photo of woman's clothing store

Liz Purtell and assistant Roz Ammendolia haven’t changed a bit. Photo: Supplied.

“I have made lifelong friends with lots of wonderful customers and amazing staff I have had in my years of management.”

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