The Pughs ran the Bulk Health Food store in Canberra’s Civic Centre (‘Civic’) in the early seventies and for a while this was my after-school job. She remains indistinct in my memory, but not so Mr Pugh, a tall and portly Englishman who seemed to have walked straight out of a British sitcom.
We were called ‘bulk’ because so much of what was sold came in large sacks, or jars, or vats. The store had a peculiar fragrance of fusty dusty mustiness, which may have owed to the plethora of vitamins and supplements which composed a good half of it. Those indeed came in their standard receptacles, as did the surprisingly large range of packaged felafel, tinned Vegelinks, plastic-sheathed tofu and tempeh. But there were four huge tins with taps containing different types of honey, to which customers would submit their brought-from-home jars – an unsurprisingly messy arrangement to which no one ever objected. There were capacious drawers opening up to reveal grains, rice, nuts and pulses, and screw- top glass jars of spices and dried herbs. There was a section devoted to skin care: a plethora of little pots sealing away the secret to eternal youth or relief from haemorroids, all shatteringly expensive. It was clear – even back then – that to live longer and look younger you also needed a lot of money. There was Evening Primrose Oil, a name which enchanted me at a price which astounded me – and an ongoing volley of little old ladies who came to stock up on it. Its claims to benefit skin disorders, PMS and arthritis have subsequently been discredited or at least exaggerated – as they were for other popular lines we sold such as lecithin and apple cider vinegar. The latter was at the time experiencing a huge wave of popularity, largely due to the belief that it was a fat-burner. In 1958 a Dr DC Jarvis had published a bestselling book which extolled its medicinal and health- giving virtues; in the early seventies were reading it all over again. (Naturally I had a shot at the diet – three teaspoons of apple cider vinegar taken before every meal – and lasted several days before deciding its unpalatable acidity was too awful for words.)
There was a bookshelf too of worthy health-related self-help titles by people like Gaylord Hauser and Adelle Davis, which in bored moments I would listlessly leaf through, longing for Answers. I probably found happier answers on my trips to the store-room, always a high-point of my afternoons. The store-room gave real meaning to the word bulk. Here, hessian sacks lolled weightily against each other; here I could just dip in one small, plump schoolgirl’s hand and withdraw a palm’s worth of roasted unsalted cashews, or fat chalky Brazil nuts, or – the best sack – cooking chocolate. Even when the level of cassia cinnamon or whole cloves in the jars had merely dropped a fraction I would zealously ensure that they be topped up in my eagerness to get back to that cool, silent, forgiving store-room.
Oddly enough, after all these decades I find that health food stores still pulsate with the same smells, the same products – the same aura, if you like. Of course, today it’s all ‘organic’ and ‘unprocessed’ and ‘natural’ and become so mainstream that supermarkets devote sections to the sort of food they sell. There’s s timeless feel to health food stores – as if they found their own particular tone and decided there was no need to change – which I find as comfortable as it is comforting.