Milk Bars: everyone has a milk story

Milk bars- entrance

I got to know milk bars and the important role they have in the Australian culture thanks to my lovely landlady Christine, when I was in Ballarat.

Music teacher and composer, back in June Chris was working on a project for the Metanoia Theatre in Melbourne, creating the music for a show entitled simply “Milk Bars”.

I had never heard of them before and I was all of a sudden very curious about their story… what are they and why are they important?



Leaflet of the milk bar show in                      Melbourne

Milk bars were the local stores, generally small places where you could buy milk (you knew it!), groceries, lollipops, magazines. Well basically a corner shop, right?

Yes and no. They were much more than this. A Milk bar was in reality a proper meeting point: the first (and often only) place where there was a phone in a remote Australian town. The focal point where people would meet up for a chat, where love stories would start.

Picture a place where everyone knows your name, where if you are short of cash you can buy goods on credit, as the owner is almost a friend and is happy to do you a favour. A place where you can meet your pals for a game of pinball, or videogame. Or put music on with the Juke box. You will start to get closer to the essence of these places.

Milk bars were much more than simply corner shops: they were truly the heart of the community.


Front page of the program of          the show

Their spread across Australia coincides with the high number of migrants that arrived in the Land of Kangaroos during the first decades of 1900: most of the milk bars were in fact run by Greek and Italian families and so they are an important part of the story of these communities as well, of their desire and sometimes struggle for integration in a foreign land. But at the same time, they are another example of the multiculturalism that shaped Australia’s history.

Unfortunately, with the rise of supermarkets, impersonal chain food stores and more convenient service stations, it began the decline of these iconic bars. There are some still around, but it seems that they have lost that genuineness and “homey” feeling that was typical of the original ones.


It made me think of when I was a kid and my dad was running a coffee place in the small town I am from, called “Bar Marconi”. It had a videogame area that fascinated me with all the sounds and lights; a phone box in a corner which smelled of smoke and where I liked to hide and make imaginary calls. I remember my grandad and other old people playing games of cards endlessly at the tables. Cards that were actually kept behind the counter, ready for whoever wanted them. It was a place where the people of the town (especially the pensioners) would go to have the daily glass of wine and sit, chat and gossip but with no rush.

Like the milk bars in Australia, those kind of traditional Italian bars are also in decline. I’m going a bit off topic here and I am aware of that, but finding out more about milk bars and the nostalgic feeling connected to their story awakened my own memories.

It is funny how travelling far away from home sometimes has the power to bring you back right where it all started.

And you? Do you have a milk bar story?


This is the entrance of a Milk Bar in Ballarat, now close

If you want to read more about the milk bars, you can check these links:


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