I Came Back to Australia, and the Milk Bars Were Gone



“The memories I have of milk bars are so strong: the ice cream, the milkshakes, the lollies, all the things you covet when you’re a kid,” Mr. Donnelly said. “The milk bar encapsulated my childhood.”

What happened to the Australian milk bar? A perfect storm. Rapidly rising property values in the cities pushed out small businesses like milk bars, greengrocers and butchers. But as early as the 1970s, the milk bar was taking hits that had little to do with real estate.

“The introduction of Big M in the ’70s really shook the milk bar up,” Mr. Donnelly said, explaining that the popular Australian flavored milk brand killed much of the milkshake business.

In that decade, supermarkets proliferated and became more accessible. Australian retail laws used to forbid most supermarkets and food shops to open on Sundays or after noon on Saturdays, making milk bars the only grocery shopping option for much of the weekend. (Gas stations were not permitted to sell food.) Those laws also began to change in the ’70s.

In the ’90s, chain convenience stores began their ascent, and service stations started selling candy and ice creams in brighter, more antiseptic spaces than the lovably shabby milk bar. Car culture in Australia rose, meaning that more people were driving to a supermarket to shop. And the country’s recession in the early ‘90s was especially unkind to small business.

These days, the ghosts of Melbourne’s milk bars are easily recognizable, the corner storefronts turned into residential properties or wine bars or shops, many of them wonderful but also indistinguishable from similar businesses all over the world. Most upsetting are the milk bars that have never been repurposed, that sit empty and papered over, their signs for the daily paper and packaged ice cream bars heavily graffitied. Occasionally, I find a milk bar that is still in business, gasping for air.