Culture //

BP and Me: How a David Jones service station changed my life

On the liminal space amid giants of the North Shore Kitsch genre.

Art by Deaundre Espejo

Since my girlfriend moved to Chatswood in early 2020, I’ve spent a lot of time driving on the Pacific Highway. After about a month of visits, I spotted it for the first time, on the service station somewhere between Gore Hill Cemetery and the Mowbray Road intersection. Alongside BP’s literally greenwashed liveries, and the somehow perpetually faded Wild Bean Cafe sign, it sits almost innocuously. White text on a black field: “DAVID JONES FOOD.” Since then, I have not gone more than a day without thinking about it. The serif font shines like a beacon, attempting to eke any modicum of prestige out of an establishment which is anything but. 

The Pacific Highway is very much in the second-class of Sydney’s traffic arteries, too narrow to attract the excellent vibes and iconic bead shops of the big dogs like Parramatta Road. But this break in the monotony of the car dealerships immediately raises its status in my mind. As someone raised on the Lower North Shore, I’ve had a first-hand view of the area’s pathological desire to make everything as vainly bourgeois as humanly possible, but come on! It’s literally a David Jones servo! This absurd extension of every North Shore stereotype is beautiful and hilarious to behold.

What this place has on other giants of the North Shore Kitsch genre (personal favourites include a Cremorne dog supplies shop earnestly called Dogue, and the completely inexplicable brokerage storefront in McMahons Point), is that it occupies a liminal space of Sydney. While it is officially called ‘BP Artarmon,’ its side of the highway is actually in Lane Cove North. It’s existence is so reality-breakingly strange that it cannot be contained by the authority of the local government. The servo is essentially on an island, where the Pacific Highway becomes an overpass for a few hundred meters. The only other shop there is a KFC. If it wasn’t in the middle of Sydney the location would scream ‘truckstop.’  Yet even this concrete slab seems to have somehow absorbed the culture, environment, and general aura of the surrounding area. In the same way that Darwin’s finches changed their beaks to better suit the environment of each Galápagos island, so too did this BP grow a David Jones sign to survive in its environment north of the harbour.

In reality, of course, the David Jones servo did not spring from the font of nature — only the folly of mankind could have wrought such a sick creation into being. This is why BP Artarmon haunts my every waking moment. Someone, somewhere, thought of this. Presumably, David Jones, or their South African parent company, were concerned that their Food division was performing sub-optimally. To rectify this underperformance, there was a meeting where I can only assume that a cocaine-addled wannabe-Don Draper gave some speech about how modern people are always on the go, and how in the year 2020, the outmoded department store has to come to them. They turned a placard around which just said: “David Jones Servo.” The boardroom broke into rapturous applause, before calling an executive assistant to bring in a bottle of Moët and leaving for an early lunch because by God was that idea a winner.

I cannot speak to whether David Jones Food runs this kind of scheme in-house or through a marketing company. What I do know is the person who gave that speech is probably an executive paid north of $150k per year. This completely sickens me. Why the fuck is no one paying me six-figures to have bullshit ideas like that on a five year contract? I could pull random combinations of brands and services out of my ass all damn day, and if “David Jones Servo” is the standard for what gets greenlit in corporate Australia, then what the fuck am I doing at uni right now?

My girlfriend is moving out of Chatswood next week, so I figured I’d finally go inside and see what there is to see. Half the store has the usual road stop fare — snacks, soft drinks, and a counter for mediocre sausage rolls and coffee. The other half, however, has pre-packaged meals garnished with quinoa and daikon radish, jars of chilli jam and compotes, and at the counter where you’d expect breath mints there are 50-gram packets of dried mango sold for $4 a pop. There is no marked divide in the interior design, as the walls have a minimalist white panelling with a black trim, with little signage. The bread rack serves as a kind of border zone — four ersatz-wooden shelves on a metal frame, the top two occupied by Sonoma artisanal fare like rye spelt sourdough, the bottom two by Tip Top white loaves. I buy a carton of chocolate milk (I pick Oak over the “premium” Coach House Dairy) just to feel like I took some kind of souvenir. As I pull onto the highway, I immediately regret not seeing what the toilets looked like. I suppose I could go back, but I’m afraid that will only yield further unanswerable questions. I’d like to think that I’m ready to move on.