Milk Bars

Milk Bars

There is not a kid inside anyone who grew up in Melbourne who does not have a fond memory of a Milk Bar or two.

It may have been the corner shop where they lived, or the tuck shop across the road from school but we all remember them as the humble Milk Bar!

Milk Bars

A milk bar for the uninitiated is a mixed business corner shop. They sold almost everything but popularly milk, bread, lollies, newspapers, cigarettes and ice cream. I remember buying fireworks, flour, matches and yes, Tarax lemonade although mum always used to buy Loys off the truck that came round.

A couple of Milk Bars that spring to mind..

- Church St, Richmond - run by Tiger legend, Jack Dyer. I never went to it, but my older brother clearly remembers it.
- Highett St, Richmond - Opposite Richmond Central Primary School, now a coffee shop.
- Coppin St, Richmond - Corner of Wall Street.
- Brighton St, Richmond - Opposite the first Richmond High School.

There were many others, along with many other milk bar memories. Years later, school friends would say their parents ran a milk bar, and I would think.. gee, I had no idea or I had forgotten, but its a nice thought.

Milk bars, Malvern Stars and empty Tarax bottles

I love a lot of things about where I live but one of the most appealing things about Northcote is the corner milk bar.

I love the little handwritten signs with letters in upper and lower case selling lemons for exorbitant prices. I love the intimacy that is created when you can smell another person's meal cooking and can hear the game-show host talking on somebody else's television. Sometimes you can even catch a glimpse through the plastic-strip curtain, of a slippered foot propped up on a coffee table.

Of course, much of my love for milk bars is based on nostalgia. The smells of a milk bar take me back to days when I would prop my Malvern Star against one shop window, take the empty Tarax bottle out of my basket and exchange it for 20 cents' worth of mixed lollies.

The selection process could take up to 10 minutes to complete, and the sight of us pulling up outside, always in a little group, must have been enough to make most milk bar owners want to weep.

I could not leave my bike in a dignified upright position because I had removed its stand. I was insatiable for attention and thought that if my parents spied me with a wrench in my hand "working" on my bike, then I might overhear them discussing my antics and referring to me as a tomboy.

It didn't occur to me that I was never going to be termed a tomboy while I insisted on riding around with a flower basket on the front of my bike.

I can still hear the humiliating sound of the metal crashing against the footpath as the bike would inevitably slide down the glass and hit the bitumen. I tried so many methods of getting the handlebars to sit against something with traction on the shopfront window.

My plastic handlebar grips were worn through, and the clink of metal tapping glass made my heart race. One day, when he feared his window would be broken for sure, the owner yelled at me and I took to just lying my bike on the ground and hoping that no elderly pedestrian on an A-frame would reprimand me for cluttering up the footpath. I hated being told off by grown-ups who weren't my parents, more than I hated just about anything.

The milk bar was also the place where I first learn't to stand up for myself as a consumer. Sure, I was no Allan Fels but I knew that when you got a Sunny Boy with the yellow writing inside it meant that you could take that wrapper to any milk bar that sold Sunny Boys and get a free one, no questions asked.

Occasionally, milk bar owners tried to dodge their responsibility. I would be forced to mutter under my breath as I left the premises that "it's not fair" and something about telling my dad and going to the "other" milk bar from now on to buy my White Knights and Choc Wedges.

My dad did get involved once or twice with disreputable milk bar owners. Once, my brothers went to buy footy cards and the owner - we called him Mr Grumpy - had sold out. But he convinced my brothers to buy the empty box that had held the cards, because "there were a couple of perfectly good pictures of players playing footy on the front of the box and it still had its bubblegum smell". He charged them the cost of two packets of footy cards.

My dad went right off when his two little darlings came home with their empty box and told him the story. Mr Grumpy refunded the purchase price but I don't think my brothers went there again.

My uncle once threw his meat pie in Mr Grumpy's face when Mr Grumpy refused to put the pie back in the oven and heat it sufficiently. Now that I write that, it seems like a violent thing for my uncle to have done, but at the time it was sheer heroism with the touch of revenge kids fantasise about in their powerlessness.

Mr Grumpy's milk bar was the place where I first became aware of domestic violence.

I remember seeing the poor wife of Old Grumpy with black eyes and then limbs bound with bandages. I can't remember who told me her husband was beating her but I knew it was true and that Mr Grumpy was a rather benign moniker for such a violent and nasty man.

His poor wife grew thinner and thinner and then died of cancer.

The shop began to smell of rotting food and stock was not replaced on the shelves. The freezer was empty and promotional posters faded in the sun while the new advertising material remained unpacked, stacked in a corner. I stopped going there when he stopped having things to sell, but even now when I drive past his old shop I wonder what became of him.

We are all very fond of the woman who runs our local milk bar. She is so kind to kids, even spotty adolescents who try to pinch things or give her cheek. She says: "Ah, the teenagers are great. They just learn. They just learn."

When I go in there and my youngest son is whingeing in his stroller, she will say: "Ah, the men. From the moment they are born they are trying to tell us women what to do." She will tell you about her grown-up children if you ask.

If you haven't been in for a few days, she asks if the kids have been well. She seems very happy doing that job and I am always glad to see her.

I hope my kids can go there alone when they get older. They are places where kids can emulate the real world on a smaller, safer scale. I learnt a lot from going to the local shop.

By Georgina McEnroe
September 25 2002

Milk bars defying their use-by date

Natalie Craig recalls a suburban institution.

‘‘ FROM little things big things grow.’’

It is a surprisingly earnest piece of graffiti, painted in white on the boards of an old milk bar in Northcote.

You could dismiss it as a hipsterish cliche, but there is a good chance the former owners of the milk bar did go on to bigger things.

To many, Melbourne’s old milk bars are reminiscent of simpler, happier times, when children played unsupervised in the streets and footy teams represented actual suburbs.

Entire families worked six days a week, for 12 or more hoursa day. Often they lived behind the shop, and teenage children could be seen sneaking in a bit of homework here and there between sales.

To their school friends, these ‘‘ milk bar kids’ ’ lived a glam life, making lime spiders, serving ice-cream in cones and acting as the gatekeeper to jars full of jewel-like lollies.

Meanwhile, the parents who ran the milk bar took on the role of secular priests— they knew everyone’s names, would always have time fora chat, and readily offered advice when it was needed. They had infinite patience, especially for young children, who would spend half an afternoon drooling in front of the lollies counter, before finally deciding to spend their sixpence or, later, five cents on freckles and snakes.

There used to bea law in Victoria that groceries could not be sold after 6pm, when the grocery section of the milk bar would be locked up. Of course, if you desperately neededa tin of tomatoes, one could always be ‘‘ loaned’ ’ to you from the back.

It was a business model with a useby date. Supermarkets and their trading hours expanded, and 7/11s and service stations also offered more convenient shopping. Hefty increases in inner-city property prices and the push of developers also played a role.

Milk bar owners, and their children, moved on.

Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella and restaurateur Joseph Abboud are among the many Melburnians who credit their success, in part, to their parents’ hard work in the milk bar, and the lessons they learnt behind the lolly counter.

A few original milk bars have survived— often thanks to coffee sales.

Dan Kuseta, whose family used to run a milk bar in Lower Plenty, and started the Milk Bar Mag website as a homage, says there are several oldschool milk bars-cum-cafes that still retaina homely, neighbourhood feel.

The 1950s Rowena Parade milk bar in Richmond, for example, was resurrected 10 years ago by new owner Con Koustas, who still sells basics like milk, bread and lollies, as well as running a cafe with home-made Greek food.

Grigons& Orr (cockney slang for corner store) in North Melbourne is a cafe with a wall of groceries.

Then there’s the scruffy garden cafe on Dundas Street in Thornbury, still covered in faded advertising. It might not be a shining example of a ‘‘ big thing’ ’ growing from something little, but all may not be lost when it comes to milk bars.

Natalie Craig

Oh boy, do I remember the surburban milk bar.

We lived in North Brighton in a small weatherboard cottage, (1 of 3 in a row, apparently built to house the workers building the railway line from Melbourne to Sandringham. (Around the late 1800 s I think) Our house was on the right hand side of the 3, and the external wall of our house was on a laneway.
The other side of the lane was the back fence of the local Milk Bar.

Now poor old Mr Thompson didnt't know there was a loose paling on the fence directly in line with the spot he stacked all the crates of empty soft drink bottles.
When we were short of money (most of the time) all we had to do was creep up the lane as silently as possible, slide the paling to one side and there before our eyes was the childs equivalent of Fort Knox.
A hand through the opening and 2 or 3 empty bottles grabbed, then a nonchalant walk down the footpath and into the milk bar as innocent as you like to cash the bottles in for sixpence each and "hey presto" more lollies than you could eat.

I know Mr Thompson was suspicious of our activities. You could see the look on his face as we crept in with our empties. wondering if this would be the time our scheme would be uncovered.
You could see his mind working,"I don't remember selling this many drinks to these kids". I always wonder these days if he knew what was going on but just turned a blind eye as in those days the milk bar serviced the whole neighbourhood with the essentials. Milk bread ice creams lollies and during the correct trading hours, groceries, I think to run a milk bar was reasonably lucrative in those days so the amount of money we actually received was probably minimal by comparison.

We were all sad when the Thompsons sold the Milk Bar to the Whites, as they fixed the hole in the fence and our scam was brought to a screeching halt.

John Davies | January 2013

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