Saturday, August 03, 2013

Olympia - The Eternal Milk Bar

The Olympia Milk Bar on Parramatta Road, Stanmore, in the city of Sydney is an anachronistic establishment. It has continued to operate, largely unchanged, since the 1950s. When evolving tastes and a downturn in the economic environment reduced the Milk Bar's trade, the owner appears to have downscaled his operations. Damage has gone unrepaired, and the range of products sold has been reduced to a handful of items. Milkshakes, sandwiches (ham, cheese, tomato only) and tea are now all the menu offers. Usually only a single fluorescent tube lights the premises, saving on electricity costs, but leaving a potentially gaily-decorated space in eternal gloom. But the essential appearance and operation of the Milk Bar have remained unscathed.

As the years have gone by, the Olympia Milk Bar has developed a profile in urban folklore. A text and media mirror of the Olympia has been taking shape in cyberspace. The process has been accelerated by social media. It's becoming one of the most photographed shops in Sydney. Somehow, the low-tech, offline Olympia seems defenceless against the onslaught of Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Google.

But the physical reality of the Olympia reminds us that the virtual world is by definition, insubstantial. Bricks and mortar will never be eroded by bits and pixels. The vast majority (probably close to 100%) of the Olympia's internet fans are drawn to the online celebration of the place because they have seen it in the flesh. They  share information about it, cajole and encourage each other to overcome their trepidation and go inside and spend some money. They meet together at the Olympia, bringing the place to life with customer numbers probably not seen there for decades.

The media mirror of the Olympia, created by people who appreciate it,  is very different from the image made by marketing giants to promote the likes of McDonalds, KFC and Subway. For them, it's the unreal, exploitative hypnotism of advertising and marketing. For the Olympia, it's personal accounts of attending the Milk Bar, the history of the community and those who grew up in it, stories about the life of its enigmatic owner and encounters with him through the decades.

It takes a lot of imagination to perceive the Olympia as a slice of life from the 50s, 60s or 70s. In those days, Milk Bars weren't covered in mildew, smashed windows were repaired, and lights were turned on. Plenty of cafes and pubs try to make reference to yesteryear by restoring an old building, or purchasing and  displaying relics of the past. The relics are polished and laminated, or protected behind glass.

The Olympia isn't like that. Its old stuff isn't there just because it's old. It's there because it's always been there, part of a functioning business. The dogged determination of its owner to continue opening can have few equals. He has been doing this for well over 50 years. The business establishments around him have been evolving at an ever increasing pace, making the persistence of the Olympia even more remarkable. The Milk Bar continued when the adjacent Theatre (its sister building) was demolished in the 1970's. The cinema that replaced the old theatre was demolished in 2004. One hopes the bland apartment building that stands there now will also be outlived by the Olympia.

So when you buy a Milkshake from Mr Fotiou, there's no pretence. It's not dreaming of the past, or copying the past. It IS the past. It won't last much longer. Despite the rumours, Mr Fotiou is not immortal. Each day his milk bar continues to operate it becomes more precious. Every time I go past it on my daily commute, I glance through its lovely concertina doors, reassured that they are open and the Olympia is still there. One day I'll go past and the doors will be closed. It will be a day of bereavement.

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