Long before I wrote about it in The Canberra Times on Thursday morning, the news of the death of Nic Manikis, owner of iconic West Queanbeyan corner store Nic's Convenience Store, had hit almost every mobile phone in my little home town.
Because Queanbeyan is still like that. We gossip, we keep tabs on who's moved house and jobs, who got married and, of course, divorced. We have 'royal' families like Ameys, Bakers, Bollards and Ristevskis. We identify people by their surnames and, often, their street names. 'You know, John and Diana's son, Jack. Surveyor Street John and Diana.'
When Nic Manikis died on Wednesday night, a big piece of Queanbeyan went with him. My home town's heart is broken for two reasons: one, because of the kind, caring man he was and two, because of the role he played in so many of our childhoods. Nic and his legendary corner store (though not actually located on a corner) represented what it meant to grow up in 1970s, 80s and 90s Queanbeyan.
For me and my siblings, who grew up on Agnes Avenue, about a two-minute bike ride from Nic's - heading to the store was a daily adventure. We were sent to get something of importance for Mum - most likely milk, margarine or bread - but we'd be allowed to spend the change. It was a big ask between four kids but it was heaven.
We'd leave a tangled mess of BMX bikes out the front and then head inside where we'd stay for - literally - 20 minutes or more, pacing the checkered linoleum floor and working out whether, if we pooled our money, we could get a Bubble-o-Bill to share.
We spent so much time in that little store and yet Nic greeted us every time we piled through the door like he hadn't seen us in years. His booming - and outrageously thick - Greek accent would welcome us in and he'd have the patience of a saint as we decided on 10 cents worth of mixed lollies - from cobbers, spearmint leaves and Redskins to witchetty grubs and freckles.
There'd be rainy Saturday arvos where we'd spend hours at Nic's, selecting a video to rent from the shelves stacked with Julia Roberts, Kathleen Turner and River Phoenix. Nic even had a tiny horror section, which we were never allowed to hire from.
When our cousins came over we'd all be sent to Nic's to buy fresh bread and sliced devon for devon-and-sauce sandwiches. Nic had a small deli and did all the slicing himself.
The Streets 'Lick a Prize' era was a God-send for corner store owners like Nic, as kids scraped up coins and bought as many paddle pops as they could in a week. I remember making myself sick on caramel and rainbow paddle pops in a futile bid to uncover a stick with the back end of a skateboard on it. I had the front and the middle sections of the skateboard, but just needed the elusive third ice-cream stick to win. I never got it.
Nic was only slightly less friendly on weekdays when you'd waltz into the shop in your Queanbeyan High uniform with a big group of teenage friends. He knew where you were all meant to be but still smiled as you paid for your hot sausage roll with sauce and a can of Coke.
While West Queanbeyan had Nic's Convenience Store, other pockets of town had their own thriving corner stores in the 70s and 80s.
My friend Maria remembers Mrs Hamera's shop on Uriarra Road (now home to a Chinese takeaway?) in the early 1970s - where the smell of hot pies lingered in the air and Mrs Hamera was good to the kids, often offering two-for-one deals on lollies.
The butcher/corner store combination was a strong offering in our little country town, with Pollard's and a giant corner shop at the far end of Meredith Street, as well as Lindbeck's and Bonniello's next door at the town end of Cooma Street.
Miraculously, there's still one butcher/corner store operating in Queanbeyan: the Dumbrell's and Just Grocer offering on Donald Road.
I remember having to line-up to buy Double-Dips and Fads with my cousins at the Donald Road shop in the late 1980s; it was always that packed. The iconic store drew in residents from Callum to Anne Street, which had a shop of its own.
I have to admit that when I called into the Donald Road shop - Just Grocer - this week (for the purpose of writing this article) it just made me sad. The poorly-lit store with half-empty shelves and customers who purchased nothing but tobacco products, for me felt like a physical representation of the demise of the corner store. The store assistant told me Just Grocer was one of a group of stores owned by TSG group - a tobacco chain - across Canberra and Queanbeyan.
I hopped in my car and cried after that visit. For an important part of my childhood that seemed lost but mostly for the huge loss that is the death of Nic Manikis. He was a special man who cared deeply about people and whose store was an immense source of pride and joy.
Then I ate a Double-Dip for breakfast. That would have made Nic laugh.
One last hurrah
Since I wrote this piece, Nic's family has made a very special decision.
On Saturday, June 15 - what would have been Nic's 68th birthday - the shop will open one last time to celebrate the man who owned it.
And in true Nic style, all of the lollies in the store will be given out free to the children of Queanbeyan in lolly bags.
Nic's daughter Kerry Weiss said the Manikis family knew it was the right way to celebrate her special dad.
"It's his birthday, we need to celebrate for him and he would definitely have wanted the kids to have what's left in the shop," Kerry said.
Through tears, she described the huge outpouring of love from the Queanbeyan community since her father's death as "overwhelming".
Hundreds of residents have visited the store, leaving flowers and other tributes to the much-loved store owner.
"We know it's not just our hearts that are broken but also the hearts of an entire city," Kerry said.
"We definitely feel that responsibility."
- Nic's Convenience Store on Morton Street, Queanbeyan, will be open from 2pm to 4pm on Saturday June 15. People are encouraged to bring bubble wands and to dress in blue and white, the colours of Nic's favourite footy team, the Bulldogs.