Melbourne’s disappearing milk bars

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.

milkbar resave
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.

38 thoughts on “Melbourne’s disappearing milk bars

  1. Simple solution to the problem which took that one down, is to build multi-storey buildings. Three is enough and certainly precedented, with retail down the bottom and residential/commercial up above. More (eight, maybe) would be better especially on the roads with trams, reducing the demand for space further back. It’s a shame that we will lose what makes us special, because people refuse to adapt for fear of losing what makes us special.


  2. Interesting, because in London, with much higher real estate prices even in the suburbs, there are off-licences (UK equivalents of milk bars) absolutely everywhere – sometimes even two next to one another. I think you have to try hard to find any place in London not within 5 minutes walk of an off licence whilst in Melbourne often you need to hop in a car to get to the nearest shop, especially in the suburbs. Perhaps their abundance is a function of the fact that off licences can sell alcohol, and so that is probably very profitable and they can cross-subsidise the less profitable newspapers and groceries – but that is just a theory.


  3. Another manifestation that is the madness that is Australian land use regulation. We have the most expensive urban real estate in the Anglosphere (pdf) entirely because State and Territory governments “helpfully” control the allocation of land between uses.

    An expose of the showed how Ireland’s ludicrous land boom was driven by restricted supply and obsessive demand. In Australia, what the author refers to as “certain landowners” with “large landbanks at the outskirts of urban areas which they then released in dribs and drabs in order to manipulate the market and artificially to maintain high land prices”, are called ‘State governments’.

    As I noted in a recent speech:

    If Australians were as free to buy and sell land as Texans—a State that has a bigger population than Australia, faster population growth, higher average income and a bigger proportion of its population in its five largest cities—our houses would cost half to a third (or even less) their current prices. Instead, a country with one of the world’s lowest population densities has the most expensive metropolitan housing in the Anglosphere. A true regulatory achievement.

    The regulatory structure raises rents, makes land use more unstable since landlords are regularly re-calculating returns, increases social inequality and bleeds away much of the benefit of economic reform in raising productivity and incomes. But by pandering to the interest of the incumbent landowners and invoking the new religion of environmentalism, it goes on and on.


  4. I LOVED milk bars when I was a kid. It was so fun to go buy a bag of lollies. I used to like those caramel buds, and freckles. Oh yes, and icey poles (Barney Bananas, Cool Sharks, and if Dad was taking us, Bubble O-Bills – Dad didn’t know about Mum’s no bubblegum rule).

    I’d agree with Krystian – the alcoholic component of “off-licences” probably keeps them afloat.


  5. ‘Dairies’ are still popular in parts of New Zealand. There were five in the small suburb where I lived adjoining central Wellington – the closest a one minute walk away, the others no more than ten minutes. I expect my older daughter will long remember the various sweeties on offer on her regular after-school and weekend visits. Perhaps that these dairies survive a short distance from the nearest large supermarket demonstrates a different mindset between Kiwis and Aussies?


  6. “Their main commercial assets were that they were within walking distance”
    Yep… that’s another factor I reckon… how many people are prepared to walk, and how far, to pick up a few kilograms of milk or whatever?
    And apart from the little Indian Grocery next door (about the same size as a traditional milk bar), and the two supermarkets, there are at least 3 milk bars (OK, one is a 7/11) within 10 minutes walk from where I live. And at least 4 family-owned milk bars within 20 minutes walk.

    At the very least, (my primary days in the 60s) there was at least one milk bar next to every school, and suburban primary schools were within walking distance for kids… again, modern parents are often very risk-averse to 5 years olds walking a kilometre or so by themselves to school, and therefore drive them to school and pick them up at the gate (at end of school or from after-school care) so the milk bars don’t get as much of a look-in.

    It’s not just the milk bars, it’s the mini-strips of 3 to 5 shops that used to be dotted around all over the place, typically including a milk bar, a butcher and a fish’n’chippery – if you were lucky, a chemist. From memory, not a few of these mini-strips had women’s (but rarely men’s) hair salons too, possibly because in the 60s one-car families, the women would get their hair done while the man took the car to work.

    Ah, the days of 2 redskins for a penny, a Sunny Boy for sixpence, a pie and sauce or a pint of milk for a shilling, … lunch for under a florin/20c. (Again, 60s, just before the swap to decimal). While icypoles and stamps have been pretty much the same price as each other for as long as I can remember, milk and pies are no longer the price of two stamps.

    Oh… and yeah, postage stamps were treated as legal tender in milk bars if you were short of change or you were short on change.


  7. It’s not just milk bars — I think that this phenomena makes cities much duller than they could be — I think Sydney has this problem but worse, and it is an exceptionally dull place considering it’s size. In this respect, if you don’t like the beach, then it appears that all that is left is a traffic jam. You can also see it in Melbourne in terms of live venues and so on, which have been moving away from the expensive areas for years.
    I might note that I don’t think this observation is in conflict with Krystians, because cities like London have a massively high density of people, so little stores can make much more money. It’s one of the real fun things about many big cities — little tiny stores all specializing in something or other.


  8. Conrad – I wouldn’t say Melbourne or Sydney are dull cities! Not in my experience anyway. Sydney may be perhaps, but not Melbourne in my view. Anyway, if property prices are such a factor in making them dull, then London Zone 1 or Manhattan would be pretty boring places!


  9. I had feared inner Melbourne would become dull due to property prices, but I don’t think it is really happening (though unlike Conrad I am not a live venues person). Overall it’s closer to Krystian’s London example with so many people that small businesses survive. The university and the entertainment venues help keep it young(ish), and the housing commission high rises ensure it is not a middle class enclave.


  10. In the end though, the property prices are high because people want to live there, and then those people who do live there want to go out, and that means bars and other places have customers. Whilst some live venues have closed, I think it’s more that they were a product of times when inner Melbourne had a few really really cool and fun venues, but then not much else after that. Now there may not be that many really really cool live venues, but I do get the impression there is much more places to go in general. Although admittedly, it’s a bit before my times – but I go on what I have heard from talking to my Sister and other people.


  11. Krystian,
    I’m really using the term dull in comparison to really buzzing cities like Barcelona or Hong Kong. Both of these cities have many people living in relatively dense and relatively poor quality housing (at least compared to Aus) and I think it has the effect of making people leave their houses and do stuff a lot more. Because of this, lots of little businesses are set up to cater for it. (I assume the same is true of London and Manhatten, but I haven’t been to either for over a decade so I can’t comment).
    Andrew — it’s not just live venues (they’re just a good example), it’s everything that needs reasonable amounts of space and reasonable turnover. Cinema, for example, is also better in Melbourne than Sydney (although I don’t think that we’ll see $2 Sunday films at the equivalent of the Panorama again). In fact, it’s hard for me to think of anything that is relatively cheap and fun but needs some sort of business to provide it that isn’t cheaper to do (or even possible to do) in Melbourne compared to Sydney.


  12. I think the two cities are comparable in cinema, and Sydney is better for bookshops thanks to Abbeys and that Japanese store in Sydney’s CBD. Melbourne is way ahead on bars and slightly ahead on cafes. Melbourne seems to have more quirky places.


  13. Conrad I go to the beach like twice a year and I find Sydney fun.

    Sydney has great bars (though I wish they didn’t play such loud music), great bookshops, live music venues, arthouse cinemas, parks and a nice harbour to walk around. As far as I can see though I haven’t been to Hong Kong I don’t know what it can offer in comparison aside from the food of which Sydney has heaps too


  14. I would have said Melbourne has better bookshops, but I prefer the secondhanders, and Melbourne has plenty of those. I don’t know how the numbers stack up, but I got a good impression years ago, my first day in Melbourne for ages, and I found an obscure book I’d be looking for for ages, sitting on the shelves of two bookshops in inner city Melbourne.


  15. I think that’s the one that I used to stop at when I visit a doctor that works in the area. Is it right next to the round-a-bout?

    Also it seems that the selection of drinks offered at convenience stores is less than that at some milk bars – often drink companies pay for shelf space in the big stores so that they don’t have space for the less popular varieties. I could only ever find “G-Force” drinks at milk bars.


  16. Tysen – Yes, that’s it. One of the two medical clinics nearby has also closed in the last few months. I don’t know the full story behind it, but there seems to have been a mass defection of doctors to a new clinic.

    Tim – Yes, I think Melbourne is better for second-hand books, though Berkelouw in Sydney is very good.


  17. Gould’s… where anything can be found if you look long and hard enough…and are willing to risk death while manouvering your way through huge teetering piles of second hand books which may fall on you at any moment.


  18. Actually, with the heritage overlay, I don’t think they can demolish the building. It’s clearly Victorian. It will probably become a signle residence with an extension above.

    What’s really happening with the replacement of milk bars by 7-11s, is the replacement of individuality with standardised conformity. each milkbar was different, an expression of the owner’s personality. There’s something melancholic about a convenience identical from Barrow, Alaska to Timaru. But that’s monopoly capital for you.


  19. If land prices and rents were to blame, there’d be no 7-11s in inner urban areas, but there are plenty.

    Corner milk bars can’t compete on service, variety or price. It’s as simple as that.


  20. S of R – An interesting point. Presumably 7-11s have more effective and cheaper supply chains and so have higher margins. But they are always on busy main streets (and usually corners of two busy streets) so presumably they can generate much higher turnover than side-street milk bars. The retail concept is viable, but only where there is a lot of passing traffic.

    Another factor with milk bars is that the actual retail space is low relative to the size of the land due to the residence being incorporated (and a small yard for the milk bar in the pic). For residential property side street locations are more valuable than main street locations.


  21. I always thought that milk bars don’t use their space efficiently, often lots of empty shelf and floor space. Off-licences are packed with stuff, to the point of often not being able to move around comfortably. I reckon we should just let them sell alcohol, having lived in the UK now for quite a while and from spending lots of time in Poland, I think our liquor licensing laws are way too restrictive (not so much for bars where there are generally lots open and late, but for shops).


  22. In the early 80’s in Geelong I worked part time in a bookshop (new & 2nd hand, the latter readable without purchase, although new got 20% staff discount!), lived upstairs and behind (with a couple of fellow hons students), milk bar (italian, two tables, and a fair espresso) next door. Just call me Bernard Black.


  23. is it something to do with cars?

    New York City is flowing with milk bars called “Korean stores”. They carry everything our milk bars do, save for some unappetizing heated food choices and the likelihood of a smith and Wesson underneath the counter. I notice you’re seeing a lot more mini IGA’s in area’s with multi-storey developments.


  24. No doubt the combined residence-shop angle makes a big difference too. If milk bar owners are paying commercial rents on residential property as well as the shop, of course they are going to struggle. And if they’ve got to compete with a low cost, high volume, highly professional operator like 7-11, then they struggle even more. This has nothing to do with regulation of land supplies and everything to do with a business model that is no good in the 21st century. Milk bars are going to go the way of milkmen who delivered fresh milk to your door every morning until the mid 70s, and in an earlier era, the rabbitohs who delivered freshly skinned rabbits to your door. That’s progress and modernity.


  25. During my years of living and socializing in the homes near the milk bar to which Andrew refers, my friends tired my rants about how good that shop could be.

    If a milk bar is to survive, this is one of the finest locations for it and the owners, I say while acknowledging their tears, have wasted the opportunity.

    I’d kick ’em out too. It’s a market…


  26. > If land prices and rents were to blame, there’d be no 7-11s in inner urban areas, but there are plenty.

    The expansion of overseas students has a lot to do with it. Those students provide a cheap source of labour that make it more attractive for external investors to operate convenience stories. Owner-operators tend to have family responsibilities, which means they require higher incomes. They are thus undercut by the combination of external investors and cheap students.

    As well, external investors can afford the larger floor space and expensive bright lighting that attracts customers at night. This factor is enhanced by the fact that student labour can work very late hours, whereas family businesses don’t find that quite so practical.

    An additional factor tied into this is that the external investors tend to be part of the same ethnic group (Indian) as the cheap labour, and thus can exploit some synergies in finding and managing workers.


  27. Son of the Ratpack: 70s? Milkos were common in Canberra up until the mid 90s.

    7-11s are basically exactly the same as petrol stations, without the nuisance of the petrol (which has no profit margin and is simply there to get you into the store anyway).


  28. It must be Christmas – nostalgia for the olden days coming back.
    My first Christmas with my new baby and I think of things we enjoyed growing up – licking the cream off the foil lids on glass milk bottles (yes, delivered by a milko straight to the door – I’m a Canberran), going to the school tuckshop to buy carob buds and fruit balls (they call them canteens these days and many schools don’t have them because not enough mums volunteer) and going down to the Manuka milk bar.

    Thankfully, the Manuka milk bar still exists – both my brothers worked there and I think about 4 generations of Canberrans have gone there for the chocolate thickshakes in the big silver cups and curly-wurlies (another chocolate that has been axed).


  29. Canberra has always had an odd retail structure, with lots of small neighbourhood retail areas away from main roads. These have now almost entirely gone in other cities (the buildings are often still there, but converted to non-retail uses).


  30. As an occasional Canning Street resident I’ll miss the milk bar on the Barkly Street corner, but there is an upside. I’ll now be able to slip off to Brunetti under the guise of buying the morning papers.

    PS Stephanie, the supermarket at the Griffith Shops have Curly-Wurlies at the checkout.


  31. that was my local milk bar too (canning/barkly st one in the pic). it was a sad day when it closed.
    i will miss it, and the friendly people that ran it. its got charicter, and it fits in with the neighbourhood. i really don’t see how they will fit units on such a small block, is it legal or did they pay people under the counter to get the permits..? i like to support small local business, rather than some chain of servo’s.
    as far as i know, or have heard this milk bar existed around 1860.
    so much history and heratige, why didnt the owner just sell it as it is and find another project, or even better, renovate it in classic style without modernizing it.


  32. With its combination of witty anecdotes, lively discussion, economic analysis and international comparisons (not to mention the surprising absence of name-calling), I’d rate this the best blog comments discussion of the year.


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