Milk Bars… Oh, the memories!

April 8, 2013

Some will say the traditional Aussie Milk Bar is a dying breed, but it still lives on in the memories of anyone who grew up in Victoria.

Milk Bars were traditionally run by Italian and Greek immigrants, characteri­sed by lino floors, laminex benches and faded signs advertising everything from Ice Creams and Big Ms to glamorous cigarette ads.

But to most who grew up with the Milk Bar, it was much more than a convenience store… it was a local institution. The Milk Bar was a warm, friendly place and it is this sense of comfort and authenticity which has imprinted fond memories and a strong sense of nostalgia into the childhoods of 70s and 80s Victoria.

But why do people hold the Milk Bar so fondly in their memories, and is it about anything more than nostalgia? We asked around and found some interesting ideas.

“It’s a bit like all the lollies you could get there; the Milk Bar was a bit of a mixed bag.” Paolo

The Milk Bar was a mix of the familiar and the exotic. They were mostly family run businesses, the store owner always knew you and your family and often had a chat to your parents while you were ruminating over which lollies to include in your $1 mixed bag.

While it was a familiar and local place, there was also an exotic element of other-worldliness in the Milk Bar owing to the heritage of the immigrant owners. This, combined with the huge variety of lollies and diverse product range made the Milk Bar a magical space.

“The shop owner would make extensive phone calls in Lebanese. We'd dawdle in the shop just to listen to the exotic sounds. He was probably the first person I met who had reason to speak in another language for a long period of time while I was around, so it was pretty captivating.” Tashi

One of the biggest drawcards as a child was the financial independence and economic responsibility the Milk Bar allowed. You learned which products were good value, and how to make the most of your small amount of money.

“I’d go for milkshakes if feeling indulgent and cashed up after a birthday.” Rohan

“It was the 1 store where you could actually afford to buy things yourself. You didn't need mum's purse and therefore didn't need her permission. And free choice was a pretty heady thing back in primary school days.” Nat

“Favourite thing was going down and seeing how many lollies you could get for the loose change you had... You'd get one of those small white paper bags and point out what you wanted and then wander back home with your treasure!” Amy

There were also other freedoms associated with the Milk Bar…

“One of the best memories? Scoring cigarettes as a minor” Dan

“The milk bar was the first place me and my friends and sisters were ever allowed to go alone (besides school). There is always one nearby and once you get to a certain age, you kinda get a leave pass and can wander down there with all your neighbourhood friends 'unescorted' and hang out.” Amy

Ultimately this kind of freedom taught us about adult responsibilities; lessons that would come in handy later in life.

“It was actually a bit stressful having to choose which lollies to get, as you could only get a certain amount for your money. And if you made a wrong decision then you’d learn not to get those ones next time. It was all about opportunity costs.” Al

We now yearn for those innocent days where the shopkeeper knew your name and you could get a buttload of mixed lollies for a dollar…as long as you were smart about it. But it turns out we learnt more, much more about adult life than we realised. 

Photo: Eamon Donnelly from Milkbar: A Photographic Archive Vol 1.