Whether it’s a carton of milk, a bacon roll or simply some unsolicited life advice, Joan Dixon has everything Mount Gambier locals could possibly need.
‘Open All Hours’: Mt Gambier’s corner shop with character
“Here’s trouble,” says a customer with a grin, as he spots Joan Dixon behind the counter of Lennons on Lake Terrace, a one-of-a-kind convenience store in Mount Gambier.
“Come over here and say that,” she declares, with a laugh and shake of her fist.
With Joanie – as she is always known – behind the counter, you can expect a side of sass with your loaf of bread and newspaper.
Seven days a week, from early in the morning, the 76-year-old is busy frying bacon, stocking shelves and delivering her unique brand of customer service as manager of the business, which she describes as “probably the last corner shop on the earth”.
“It’s a Ronnie Barker kind of shop, Open All Hours,” she says. “I’m a morning person … once I’ve had my coffee. I’m either flat out or asleep.”
Just around the corner from the city’s famed Blue Lake, Joanie and her two sons – Nick and Mick – frequently find themselves dispensing local knowledge to the visitors who drop in.
“I usually say to tourists, we don’t have to holiday anywhere because we live in such a beautiful place,” Joanie says. “Mount Gambier really is the land of milk and honey; it’s an absolute gem of a town.”
Stocking everything from local fruit to winter wood supplies and handpicked bunches of flowers, Mick bought the shop in 2009, with the aim of making it a place for tradespeople and locals to grab essentials and go.
“Mick said to me, ‘Mum you’re going to laugh, but I’ve bought a shop’. I did think he’d lost his marbles at the time,” she says.
Joanie and twin sister Patsy were born and raised in Naracoorte, an hour north of Mount Gambier. Admitting she was “a bit of a lair” at high school, a young Joanie applied for her first job doing the books at local stock and station agency Dalgety’s and discovered her forte: her ability to talk to anyone and everyone.
“I talked my way into it,” she said. “I always had the gift of the gab.”
Marrying her first husband and moving to Edenhope in Victoria at the age of 24, Joanie went to work for a stock and station agent while her husband worked on the land to make the farm. The couple later went into business for themselves, setting up an old petrol station into a Goodfellows supermarket, employing all local staff.
After 16 years, she and her husband went their separate ways, and Joanie moved to Mount Gambier with her second husband Keith in 1988.
Sport always played a big role in family life, with Mick a champion ruckman and former coach for South Gambier, a team the shop now sponsors. So, it comes as no surprise one of the chief topics of conversation at the shop is football and how well or badly Joanie’s beloved Adelaide Crows have played on the weekend.
“Whether it’s win or lose, I love the banter of sport through the shop; giving stick to people,” Joanie says.
With a firm focus on championing local causes, Joanie has no problems laying out her principles to any silver-tongued sales people who may come calling.
“We’re fiercely local. The first thing I ask salespeople is ‘Where are you from?’,” she says.
“I say to them, ‘You sound nice but you’re not going to walk back through my door and order a salad roll tomorrow.’ We like to support people who can support us back.”
In the year that was 2020, supporting locals paid off. Remaining open when other businesses were forced to close, the shop became a place for people to get their essentials, gather, discuss news of the day and find a friendly ear over the counter.
During the first lockdown, Joanie placed a simple handwritten sign outside the shop saying “Your support has kept our jobs, thank you!” It was both a message to their loyal customers and a reminder to the Lennons team about how important customer service is to the dynamic of the business.
“Our customers are very important and we needed their support to survive,” Joanie said. “If we send them off feeling better than when they walked in, they’ll come back.
“Because we’re a unique little shop, we have time to have a chat and give support.”
Sensitive to when people are having “a rough trot”, Joanie spends that little bit longer talking to some visitors and often delivers groceries to the homes of elderly customers. Now in her twelfth year at the store, Joanie says it’s her “happy place” and she enjoys seeing her regulars change and evolve over the years.
“I love watching little children grow up, go to school and step into life. The same as watching the oldies go from walking sticks to walkers to gophers – I follow everyone’s footsteps,” she says.
“I get to be myself here and sometimes that’s a GP, a dentist, a therapist. I bulk bill everyone for my information.”
After the day is done, Joanie and the boys might be out the back, sinking an ice-cold beer, what Joanie calls their “reward for a good day”. And there’s no hint of hanging up her tongs.
“Never!” she declares. “I don’t know what my use-by-date is yet, but I’m going to hang in here as long as I can.”
Long-time customer Jenny pops in to see Joanie for a banter and the pair quickly dissolve into laughter.
“As a customer, she always makes me feel good and we’ve become friends,” Jenny says. “She brightens everyone’s day.”
This story first appeared in the July 2021 issue of SALIFE magazine.
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