Last Saturday, as I have almost every Saturday over the last decade, I went into the milk bar at the corner of Barkly St and Canning St in Carlton to buy the papers. On the verge of tears, the owner told me that this would be the last time I’d do so. Not by choice, they were closing down.
The cnr Barkly St and Canning St milk bar on its last trading day, 20 December 2009
In my childhood side-street milk bars were common. There was one in the minor Mt Waverley street I grew up in during the 1970s, and several more within walking distance. According to the Encyclopedia of Melbourne, in the early 1950s milk bars sold nearly three-quarters of Melbourne’s confectionary, ice cream and soft drinks, and in the early 1960s had nearly 20% of total food sales. Kids could buy sweets chosen from a selection selling at one or two cents each (I used to particularly like the false teeth you could eat).
It was a slow way to make money, but by working 12-15 hour days, 7 days a week milk bars were a source of upward mobility for many migrant families, first the Italians and Greeks, and more recently for Asian families like the one who ran my local milk bar. Their son studied computer science at the U of M. Usually milk bar owners lived behind or above the shop which allowed some family life between customers.
Their main commercial assets were that they were within walking distance and they were friendly and familiar. As you can see from the picture, there was no slick presentation. Beneath some graffiti to the left of this picture there is still a sign advertising The Sun, which was last sold inside on 5 October 1990, merging with The Herald to the become the Herald-Sun the next day. Partly obscured in the corner of the window is still an ad for Marlboro cigarettes. How this escaped the attention of the health police I have no idea.
Most milk bars couldn’t survive competition from supermarkets, 7-11s and service station convenience outlets (which my next-door neighbour in that childhood street started at Shell). The milk bar in my childhood street went many years ago. Though there are three service stations, two supermarkets and a 7-11 nearby in Carlton or Fitzroy, my current milk bar had survived – probably because many locals, like me, would rather do business with people we see regularly than the passing parade of students at a chain outlet.
In the end, it seems it wasn’t the competition that killed my local milk bar, but the ever-more-absurd sums of money people will pay for inner-city real estate. I always presumed the people who ran the milk bar owned the building too, but apparently they don’t and the owner is kicking them out. I expect it will be demolished and a townhouse or apartments put in its place. The building itself has little architectural merit, but according to Peter Yule’s history of Carlton it’s one of the suburb’s oldest retail outlets, dating back to the 1870s. After so long, it is very sad to see it go.