Photographing the Last of the Milk Bars

April 28, 2015

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, 5-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.

As 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.

- VICE: Hey Eamon, what you find so interesting about milk bars?

- Eamon: 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 colour, the fashion, the excess, and there was just so much money everywhere. I think of the 1980s as a happy time.

- VICE: 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, what happened 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.

- VICE: 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 when 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.

- VICE: 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 milk shakes. It's sad, but then it's just change. I'm trying to archive this change.