Time capsules of the Inner West
I recently paid a visit to two milk bars in Sydney’s Inner West: Olympia in Annandale and Rio in Summer Hill. Both are run by mysterious and very elderly gentlemen; both were popular in their heyday several decades ago; both are dilapidated museums that look like they were last touched 30 years ago. I genuinely lived in a mild fear and awe of these places, looking from a safe distance lest I be sucked into their time machine and never return.
Perhaps more than most people, I love a good historic urban landmark: an object that we may take for granted that has remained constant while all around it has changed. The things these milk bars, and their owners, have seen! These places, but especially the Olympia for some reason, have attracted a fair degree of online attention from other gawkers. Here are some links:
- An ABC radio documentary (!)
- A Yelp review
- A blog post with pictures
- A blog post with good prose and information
- A local newspaper article on the Rio
- A Sydney Morning Herald article on old milk bars in general
There are other blog posts too, and a couple of Facebook pages.
The visit to the Olympia cost me $2.90 and netted me a passable but small caramel milkshake and an enjoyable sit down to peruse the art deco floor and large number of seriously old advertising posters for chocolates and ice creams that don’t exist any more. He has many retail boxes to hold chocolate bars, every single one of them empty. It’s been recorded that he says there will be a delivery soon; if true, it confirms beyond doubt that this fascinating gentleman has passed into senility. Folklore surrounds him. It is open every friggin’ day from dawn to late at night, but you never see anyone inside. Apparently his brother’s dying wish was that he run this milk bar indefinitely. There’s the lightly signposted “Olympia Salon” upstairs where his wife used to cut hair. This milk bar once traded on the popularity of the cinema next door, but now it is a dilapidated building so out of touch with its surroundings that it invites incredulity.
The visit to the Rio cost me $3.50 and netted me an undrinkable banana milkshake. The owner was quite friendly and engaged in conversation, when he finally emerged, but either the milk or the flavouring was past its expiry date, and at least half of it went down the drain when I got home. This shop is quite small, and not as interesting as the Olympia; hence, I suppose, the lesser coverage. But it is equally out of touch with its surroundings. He has chosen soft drink bottles to adorn the useless shelves around the place, an incongruous attempt to keep up some sort of appearance. Summer Hill has changed immeasurably in the decades that this shop has stood, but it’s sad that the owner is no longer capable of fulfilling its function, thus making it more of a caricature than a bona fide living museum.
Ultimately there is a sadness surrounding these places. You could view them as good honest men completing their life’s work, but the unavoidable conclusion for me is that their devotion to their outdated businesses is either the cause or effect of their apparent senility. How can they not be lonely? How can the Olympia be “open” so many hours per week and serve so few people? It is not normal for a milk bar to serve milkshakes only. (I didn’t ask, but the mountains of empty chocolate boxes and legions of decorative soft drink bottles do not suggest the availability of anything else.) These men should be retired, in good company, living out their final days in style. What amounts to a fascinating view into the past for us outsiders is paid for by the poor mental state of the very private individuals who enable it.
Nonetheless, at least the Olympia is a functioning milk(shake) bar, and I will visit it now and then while it is still around, which surely won’t be long. It is nice to sit in the dark and look outside onto Parramatta Rd and think what that view would have been like 50 years ago. The owner keeps his insights to himself. He does not want to be interrogated. It is enough to pay one’s respects with one’s custom. But if one is thirsty, one is advised to purchase two milkshakes, not one.