Last day in the life of a dye-ing Dunedin institution

Penrose's store on the corner of George and St Andrew Sts - deemed "the most modern shop in the...
Penrose's store on the corner of George and St Andrew Sts - deemed "the most modern shop in the Dominion" when it opened in 1909 - closed its doors in 1995. Photo by 'Otago Witness'.
Numerous things in my life have somehow managed to produce both pleasure and pain.

High school, Michael Campbell and fish and chips are three that spring quickly to mind.

But when I went in search of black fabric dye last week, I was reminded of a fourth - Penrose's, the department store that sold the little things other stores didn't.

Penrose's was pure pain when I was taken there as a child to endlessly try on allegedly fine clothes, a task that sucked up valuable after-school time usually reserved for cricket and shoplifting.

My mother would drag me towards the store doors like a midwife pleading for one last push.

Photos from that time confirm my memory, I look like someone in the 1926 Royal Family.

In early adulthood, beset by a lack of money and style, I returned to Penrose's on sale days, ransacking their odd socks bins.

Only Penrose's realised that nobody ever peels a man's trousers back to check his socks match.

That they sold these socks so much cheaper than matching ones was bewildering to me, but then again, I was short on style.

I also bought jerseys in colours only the colour-blind would buy, reasoning that a tin of black dye could fix anything. Penrose's sold black dye, too.

So last week, when every morning was as cold as a student flat, it was black dye time again, because my finest beanie is blue.

Wear a blue beanie with black everything else and people will start whispering you don't have style.

The blue beanie goes so far over my ears it doubles as a neck warmer.

It is woollen and warm, with all the engineering genius of a balaclava and none of the criminal menace.

I finally found black dye at a Mosgiel pharmacy, right across from the Aurora Cafe, whose lamingtons are the size of pizzas.

I did the business, remembering that black dye takes three times as much soaking and twice as much salt, and while the beanie didn't turn black, it did become a very dark blue.

I emailed my eternally holidaying wife to tell her I was back on the dye, and she immediately forbade me to continue.

Wives have historically struggled with the concept of man whanging a breadknife into a small tin without bespattering floor and walls.

I made the beanie jet black on Photoshop, and sent her the pic with the witty caption, "Done".

But back to Penrose's.

Real pleasure came when I grew old enough to appreciate how good old things can be.

I loved watching the cannisters of customer money whooshing up the pipes, and hearing the thwok on its return.

Slow? I've been served slower at McDonald's.

In 1995, they announced Penrose's was closing.

The Listener asked me to write on The Last Day, and I duly spent that day listening to customer conversations and talking to staff.

I went up to the first floor to see the other end of the piped money-changing.

The women were laughing and chatting as their hands deftly processed the metal cannisters.

It was like watching chocolate-sorting in the middle of a model train railroad.

Out in the dimly-lit showroom amidst boxes and debris, shafts of sunlight flickered on the heads of a row of mannequins, standing eerily in a line.

They looked at the badly-dressed little man moving among them taking notes, wondering if he represented a stay of execution, that maybe their days on the shop floor were not over after all.

But they were.

At 5.30pm, I went and stood across the road to watch the final minutes behind the glass-panelled doors.

The manager drew his staff around him in a little circle.

I wish I could have heard what he said.

Outside, people rushed past without a sideways glance, keen to get home to the telly, you know, for the important stuff.

- Roy Colbert is a Dunedin writer.

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