But some, like Lisa Clarke, who owns the Little River General Store, are firmly focused on the future. Lisa has worked hard to make her shop, in the shadow of the You Yangs, the beating heart of this little community.
The store’s Facebook page has about 18,000 followers – even though the local population is only 2000 – and features regular updates about lost-and-found pets and upcoming events.
The shop has a petrol bowser, an Australia Post facility, a busy sandwich bar and hot food counter, and shelves and fridges filled with everything from nappies and L-plates to frozen ravioli and pet food.
The coffee machine is a lure for tradies on the way to work and parents heading home from school drop-off. And the mixed lollies are popular with everyone from toddlers to cyclists en route to the nearby national park.
“I didn’t want this place to be sold and to become just a petrol station because people in Little River need this store,” says Lisa, who took over the business three years ago. “When we opened, 30 per cent of locals came here and now it’s around 90 per cent.
“These places are about personality and connection. When we had fires in the area, people naturally gravitated here to comfort each other. The fire trucks pulled in and we kept the shop open for the emergency services. If something happens in Little River, people often come here to find out what is going on.”
With a growing population, and the nearest supermarket a 10-minute drive away, the Little River store highlights the difference between metropolitan and regional Victoria. With less competition and a captive customer base, country milk bars that have diversified often fare better than their city cousins.
“Milk bars like the Little River business still service the community and they receive support from that community. They see kids and families grow up and everyone knows everyone,” says Eamon Donnelly, author of The Milk Bars Book. “In the cities and suburbs it’s a different story,” he says, “due to seven-day trading, extended opening hours of supermarkets, the rise of 7-Elevens and the fact that more people have a car, so it’s no longer inconvenient to go to the supermarket to buy a few things.
“But there are some success stories in the city. Coffee is a big survival tactic, particularly if it’s mixed with nostalgia. Some milk bars keep the legacy of the business with retro signage and milkshakes that trigger our childhood memories of going to the milk bar and that glorious feeling of stepping into a paradise of sweets and treats.”