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Jenny Brown: Showcasing the charm of Melbourne souvenirs

Jenny Brown Melbournalia

Owner of Melbournalia

"Many of our suppliers are first or second-generation Australian, but many have also recently chosen Australia as their home, and their interpretation of Melbourne is so lovely to look at."

One does not peer or stare into Melbournalia’s large windows. One gazes into it as one would a jewellery box filled with fascinating treasures. And in a way it is exactly that.

The souvenir shop on the upper end of Bourke Street brims with an eclectic collection of heritage and emerging brands - all designed and produced by Melbourne creatives.

There are jars of Melbourne City Rooftop Honey, packets of Chai Walli tea, cheerfully coloured Otto and Spike socks and pastel polymer clay necklaces by Emily Green.

Propped on the shelves are books, footpath guides and colour cards on Melbourne by authors the likes of Robyn Annear, James Boyce and Angus O’Callaghan.

The rest of the space is peppered with ubiquitous keepsakes like the tea towels in whimsical prints, the fridge magnets stamped with Aussie slang words and the pennants emblazoned with the names of Melbourne’s suburbs.

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This handpicked selection has cemented Melbournalia's reputation as the city’s best souvenir outlet. But what truly sets it apart is its owner, Jenny Brown, who knows the face and story behind every single brand in her space.

“One of my favourite conversations is explaining a product's story to people and seeing the light bulb go off when they realise I know the maker or the family behind the business,” she smiles. “You can see their appreciation for what they’re holding completely change.”

And to think that Jenny, who has a background in cinema studies and art history, spent years resisting the world of retail as she held out for a “fabulous arts career".

“Then I realised I’m pretty good at shop keeping! So I quit my retailing job and my mother gave me some money to get started. She's the patron saint of Melbournalia.”

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Melbournalia was a series of eight pop-up stores in its first two years. What were the early days like?

We started in 2011 and that first year was a mad scramble but enormous fun! There were four of us back then and the idea was to tell stories about Melbourne in different ways by showcasing the work of creative locals in an interesting environment.

Our first and main pop-up store was in the Munro Building just behind Queen Victoria Market. We called in favours and all our 50 suppliers agreed to let us have their products on a sale-or-return basis. It was such a leap of faith from them.

Our other pop-ups were in the market, in a warehouse down an old alley, in office buildings and in a shipping container. Then we got a grant to open a permanent store on Bourke Street in 2013. I’ve made it sound so easy, haven't I? It wasn’t. It was a lot of hard work.

Why did you choose to set down roots at this end of Bourke Street?

The location chose us. I had my heart set on a space at the Block Arcade that ended up going to a friend. A real estate agent found us this location but I was a little despondent coming up here the first time, to be honest.

I initially felt this area was too far away from the action and the building itself seemed a little set back from the street. But then I walked in the door and turned around to this beautiful view!

And then of course I took a good look around and realised what a fabulous, historic part of Melbourne we would be in. Right near Parliament House, Pelligrini’s and the Windsor Hotel. So it was a happy accident that we’re here now.

Melbournalia is rarely quiet and there are always a few people browsing in here. Who are they apart from tourists?

People working in government and other organisations at this end of town. They usually come in during the day to shop for corporate clients. Then there are those travelling overseas, or who have friends or family visiting, or whose kids are going on international school excursions.

There’s also the wider community who happen upon us through Google. We’re actually very popular with the Japanese and have had quite a bit of press in the Japanese media.

One Japanese woman came racing in last month. She had been working at the Australian Open and said she had to come in here before she left Melbourne because she had searched “good quality Melbourne souvenirs” and Melbournalia topped the Google search results. That was such a nice surprise!

You were born and raised in Melbourne. What has Melbournalia shown you about the city that you would have otherwise taken for granted?

How important diversity is in this city. I have absolute proof that without this cultural diversity, we simply wouldn’t have this incredible place. Many of our suppliers are first or second-generation Australian, but many have also recently chosen Australia as their home, and their interpretation of Melbourne is so lovely to look at. That prism of diversity is more precious than we can say.

And what have you learnt through running a local souvenir business?

I’ve learnt a lot about bees and it’s fascinating! One of our bestsellers is the Melbourne City Rooftop Honey. I never knew much about honey or bees or what it has to do with climate change. Or how there are 25 different pollens in a jar of honey that’s produced in an inner city hive compared to maybe 12 from a jar produced in the country. And how a jar produced in North Melbourne will taste completely different to one produced in Doncaster.

A sense of community is so important when you're a small business in a big city. How did you tap into that when you first moved here?

In some ways it was quite a natural process. It’s like camping. If you have a tent next to someone you hear everything! You have to negotiate where the rubbish bin goes or how to deal with someone a little crazy that comes into your shared space - which happens frequently around here, unfortunately. And the other great way is making the effort to participate in community events.

How have you seen the city change with time?

I’m in my fifties now and there’s a vast change from the time I came into the city during school holidays to go to the pictures with mum. I went overseas for the first time in the 80s to Paris, London and New York, and I thought, wow these are the cities I see on television. I’ve watched Melbourne slowly become one of those cities.

How do you feel about that?

I love it! I love that you can go out at any time of the day or night and have something interesting to do. You couldn’t do that even 20 years ago. It’s changed enormously. When I was growing up I felt like I lived in this tiny little spot at the edge of the world that wasn’t quite connected to the wider world. And now we’re part of that wider world.

In A Snap:

Favourite Aussie slang: “Bonza” It’s something my father or brother would say. It means ‘"great". The other one I love is “no worries’ because that’s picked up by everyone who comes here. All the Italian waiters across the road say it.

Favourite laneway café: Sensory Lab on Ridgeway Place

Favourite city building: The NGV

Best place for a shot of inspiration: State Library of Victoria

Most underrated local product: Neenish tarts. Everyone should know about them. I don’t think they were invented in Melbourne but they were part of old-world cake shops.

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