Have you got a corner store? In the face of unrelenting competition from massive supermarkets, worldwide convenience chains, modern service stations and extended operating hours, several neighbourhood corner stores were once a symbol of suburban Australia.
This is just the evolution of modern Australian retailing, many would claim. Few recognise the social and community consequences of the loss of this former pillar of the neighbourhood.
A corner-store renaissance of sorts has been underway lately, however.
The bigger the stuff gets, the more disconnected we feel
The relation with community people once felt weakened when major shopping malls developed and urban population density grew. Studies have shown that feelings of alienation and social isolation are directly linked to commitment to the community and indirectly linked to local facilities.
The principle of social anonymity is also used to illustrate the degree of connectivity within society. The seminal 1938 work of sociologist Louis Wirth, Urbanism as a Way of Life, illustrated the elements of social anonymity and alienation as cities developed. He noticed the relative absence of close personal associates, and the segmentalisation of increasingly anonymous, shallow and transitory human relationships.
Simply put, people started to feel invisible and lonely as cities grew larger. Every morning, we stand on busy trains , trams and buses, surrounded by people, but we can feel very lonely.
A recent survey showed that if we saw them on the street, or welcomed a neighbour into our homes, only half of us would know our neighbour. In comparable countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, similar findings have been made.
A nearby meeting spot
Milk bars were a ubiquitous characteristic in Australian communities until the 1970s. This is Brisbane’s Adelaide Lane, 1952. State Archives of Queensland
About every suburban neighbourhood had a corner store from the 1950s until the early 1970s. Newspapers, bread, milk, cigarettes, ice-creams and mixed lollies were attracted to these shops by locals of all ages.
Stores were more than just economic centres, but by design they were social. People were familiar with their local shopkeepers, and shopkeepers were familiar with their clients.
Children enjoyed their first taste of freedom, always with the family dog in tow, while walking or riding their bike to the local store. Locally, shopping included picking up a few things for Mum and Dad as well as the compulsory ice cream or mixed lollies bag.
Kids on bikes, dogs waiting by the door and customers stopping for a chat while picking up the basics will present a typical scene outside a local store.
Decline for decades
A mixture of factors created a “perfect storm” from 1980 onwards, which led to the closing of neighbourhood stores across Australia.
In the 1980s, milk bars began disappearing from communities in Australia.
Combined with gas stations, the advent of Sunday trade for large grocery stores and the rise of convenience stores meant consumers could purchase most products sold from supermarkets and service stations in their local corner store, often at much cheaper rates.
A 34 percent decrease in the number of corner stores between 2010 and 2012 was recorded by BIS Shrapnel. Australian Food News reported in 2012 that over the previous 30 years , the number of conventional milk bars had decreased significantly.
The immigrant parents who had run several shops also realised that their kids were often hesitant to take over a company with long hours and modest returns. Stores have struggled and many have closed. One, two or three generations often moved away from the area when the family-run company collapsed.
The closing of the local corner stores left neighbourhoods with both literal and figurative gaps. People had no option but to shop at larger supermarkets full-time, much farther away from home and requiring car travel.
The history of the corner store and the iconic milk bar has been painstakingly documented by Eamon Donnelly. In a striking series of photos of once prosperous and later abandoned stores around the country, his novel, Milk Bars, traces the past of Australia’s love affair with the local shop.
Eamon Donnelly ‘s Milk Bars book records the corner stores around Australia.
For customers, existing retailers, landlords and local authorities, empty shop fronts have major local economic and social impacts. Vacant buildings rather visibly symbolise a deteriorating neighbourhood and potentially criminal activity in the harbour.
The Corner Shop Reviving
The humble corner store is undergoing a kind of revival in some urban and suburban areas.
The local store is being reinvented by a new generation of shopkeepers. By offering a fun, local shopping experience, these new stores are aiming to meet the needs of a new kind of local customer. In-house cooks, cafes and pop-up tastings are launched, local items are stocked, eco-credentials are sprouted and local schools, charities and causes are sponsored. In order to promote recycling, low or zero waste goods and packaging, and sustainable retailing, the new generation of local shopkeepers are keen.
Aided by social media marketing, these shops share their personal experiences and are the latest community centres in many places. Old milk bars in all their former retro glory are being resurrected in several suburbs. Customers of pinball machines, mixed lollies and proper milkshakes will relive their childhood memories.
Reconstruction of shops and neighbourhoods
Not all corner stores will, sadly, be resurrected. The benefits for the local community are real for those who are. In restoring a sense of community and trust, local stores have an important role to play, as they facilitate civic participation and inspire people to walk or ride their bikes in their local area.
While many corner stores have closed over the past 30 years, the success of those that have survived or been resurrected is focused on adapting comfort, coffee and community to what local customers are requesting.
A lot of small shops are reinventing the concept of what a corner store can and should be in suburbs and inner-urban areas. Buildings are starting to be repurposed and restored. This restores local communities with a sense of identity and promotes more growth and the opening of new businesses, such as the old Peters Ice-cream Factory in the West End of Brisbane.
“In urban centres, local retailing will serve as a” social glue. People are again looking at local shopping to interact with their culture.