I was walking down the street a few nights ago when two people zoomed past on bikes. I could hear them talking and one of them exclaimed, “A milk bar! Do they still have those? Who would ever go there?”
I looked over my shoulder at the shop I’d just gone past and sure enough, there was nobody inside.
It got me thinking.
I live in a suburb with three milk bars* within a few minutes walk of my house. (*a milk bar, for those unaware, is like a very small grocery shop selling the bare essentials with a focus on lollies, ice-cream and tinned goods. In parts of the world it may be called a general store, a corner store, a deli or a dairy.) Why is that? In my whole life, I’ve never been so near to so many milk bars.
3 minutes walk to this one:
6 minutes 40 walk to this one:
These are not sophisticated places. They have so little internet presence you can’t even find them on Google Maps. They don’t even have names. They exist principally for locals to pick up a few things.
I remember when I was a boy of about five, the milk bar near my family home closed. At that stage I’d only gone there to get lollies once or twice, but I sure was disappointed. I understood that as the end of an era. Retail was consolidating into a few big supermarkets and people didn’t need milk bars any more.
I subsequently moved to a house in North Fitzroy that had one milk bar nearby but I only used it once, when I was halfway through cooking and realised I needed another tin of tuna. It cost $7. So milk bars stopped figuring in my life. Until I moved to Clifton Hill. Then they were everywhere.
The three milk bars pictured above differ in their product offerings.
The closest one sells newspapers, has a coffee machine, sells Baklava and stocks a moderate range of groceries.
The second closest one does some deep-fried takeaway foods and stocks a minimal range of groceries.
The furthest one has DVDs, does dry-cleaning and stocks a minimal range of groceries.
There’s also, in this suburb, a continental supermarket, which I almost consider a milk bar. But since it calls itself a supermarket I will give it the benefit of the doubt. It is all of 40 metres away from one of the milk bars.
I was trying to explain to myself what it might be about the nature of this particular quiet, leafy, left-wing pocket of the inner north that made it so inclined to milk bars. Might the residents tend to be very forgetful and need to pop out for more cat food? Might they prefer not driving to the shops? Might they be opposed to big supermarkets? Any of these seemed unlikely given the rest of the inner north is demographically similar.
The reason, I eventually concluded, is the absence of big supermarkets. Clifton Hill is tucked into a bend of Merri Creek and that makes it probably uneconomical to put a big supermarket here. The above-mentioned Continental Supermarket does an okay job, and there’s a small FoodWorks around 15 minutes walk away too, (although it has earned the nickname ExpensiveWorks.)
I mapped the supermarkets of the region and I can report that it is 2.3 km to the nearest major supermarket, Smith St Woolworths, 2.4 km to Piedimontes supermarket and 3.3 km to Northcote plaza. That is apparently the magic distance you need for milk bars to start clustering.
In the following map, Supermarkets are black dots and the local milk bars are blue dots. I’ve put rings around them to indicate their catchments, for purely illustrative purposes. There are smaller, lighter red rings around the two small “supermarkets” that serve Clifton Hill. What is most notable is Clifton Hill is rare in being so far from a major supermarket.
In a lot of the inner north, the red circles overlap. This suggests higher population density, sterner competition, and perhaps lower willingness of residents to drive to the supermarket. I suspect in much of Melbourne, the red circles would be far apart, leaving gaps just like Clifton Hill, but the population density would not be enough to support such a density of milk bars.
I’d be very interested to hear about other regions that seem to support disproportionate numbers of milk bars. Do they also fall into the cracks, more than 2.4km from a major supermarket? Or are there other reasons you can think of for their continued existence?