Photographing the Last of Australia's Milk Bars

A tribute to the country's vanishing independent corner shops.

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Apr 28 2015, 4:00pm

Family friend Jerome at his Hervey Bay store Dundees in 1989, Queensland. The building is now a chain grocery store.

They're known as corner shops in New South Wales, delis in South Australia, and dairies in New Zealand, but a "milk bar" is where Victorians go to buy Chico rolls, five-cent lollies, and several different types of white bread. They're vestiges of a 20th-century childhood and, sadly, they're on the way out. Which all explains why a guy from Melbourne named Eamon Donnelly is documenting them.

A graphic designer and photographer, Eamon self-published a book of milk bar photography a few years back. He didn't think it would go anywhere, but he started getting letters from shop owners around the country, along with their old photos. Spurred by their support, he's been compiling photos and interviews for another book to be released next year. We thought we'd see how he's going.

Port Melbourne milk bar

VICE: What do you find so interesting about milk bars?
Eamon Donnelly: It's sort of complicated but I'll start at the beginning. A few years ago I started to look for 1980s coffee table books. There was one called A Day in the Life of Australia, published in 1981, the year I was born. So I was flicking through and something just clicked. The 1980s! It just seems to me to be the archetypal Australian period. I remember the summers, the color, the fashion, the excess, and there was just so much money everywhere. I think of the 1980s as a happy time.

Eamon (far right) with his cousins drinking Fanta in a Geelong Milk Bar in the mid 1980s. Photo by Mal Donnelly (Eamon's dad)

And where did milk bars fit in?
Well part of that memory for me was milk bars. The street where I grew up had a milk bar run by a husband and wife—Peggy and Dave. And one day I wanted to go back and have a look, maybe even buy an ice cream. So I drove over but it was gone, replaced by a naturopath. The only remnant of the shop was a few tin signs on the side. One for the Age and the other for the Sun.

So I got thinking, Whathappened to milk bars? I started taking photos to capture them, first on Polaroid but then with digital SLR. Since the first book I've built up an archive of around 300, maybe 350 different milk bars around the country.

Hotham Street milk bar, Balaclava

You must have dug up some history in your travels.
I have. The milk bar is an Australian invention. A Greek migrant named Joachim Tavlaridis opened the first in 1932. At that time a lot of Greek migrants were moving to America, as well as Australia, and Joachim visited family in Chicago and saw they were opening shops called soda parlors. So he came back to Sydney with a similar idea, but instead of soda he'd sell milkshakes. At Sydney's Martin Place he opened the first milk bar called the Black and White 4d Milk Bar. And it was a huge hit. So other Greek immigrants copied the idea and within about five years there were thousands around Australia and New Zealand.

Over the years, corner stores and milk bars became the same thing, as they were the go-to business for migrants. So all the Greek and Italian migrants bought the corner stores from the Irish and English immigrants from the previous generation, but started selling all this exotic food from back home. This is why in SA and WA they're called delis.

Darebin Road milk bar

And what have you observed about them now?
They're on their last legs. The thing that owners have told me is that they used to be open seven days a week, whereas the supermarkets were closed weekends. Now supermarkets and 7-Elevens are open all the time and they just can't compete. A few owners have told me their money now comes from cigarette sales. So these days they basically sell bread, cigarettes, and newspapers, but no one buys newspapers either. Not a lot sell hot food any more, or milkshakes. It's sad, but then it's just change. I'm trying to archive this change.

You can check out Eamon's various milk bar projects here. He also runs the the Island Continent, a site all about Australian nostalgia.

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Circa 1990. Gavin standing proudly in front of the cards, smokes, and lollies in Eamon Donnelly’s childhood Milk Bar in East Geelong.

Milk bar in Prahran

The Lara General Store

Jeff and his wife Nina in Brunswick

Louie's Corner Store in Wollongong

Ryrie Street milk bar in Geelong

The Little Truckers Convenience Store

Delicious

This is the exterior of the shop from the very top of the article. Dundees in Hervey Bay, QLD

Rio Milk Bar in Summer Hill

Inside the Rio

Aussie Signage

The Olympia Milk Bar