At night the only place open in Summer Hill was the Rio Milk Bar. It shone like a gem in the dark street. I’d go in there sometimes – years ago when I used to live nearby – to buy things like a can of lemonade or a packet of jubes. One evening I went in and George, the owner, was sitting behind the counter as usual, grinning at an episode of the Simpsons which was playing on the tv. I was surprised to find George, who was in his 80s, watching the Simpsons. The store with its displays of milkshake paraphernalia and chocolate bars was such a trip to the 1950s that the Simpsons seemed shockingly contemporary.
The Rio was a cheerful place, with its window display up of handmade tinfoil signs, chocolate bar packets and collages of pictures of ice creams cut out from their boxes. On the front window in faded letters “The Rio Bar” was hand-written like a signature. Inside the displays were decorated with streamers and stars cut out from hologrammatic foil. On one wall was a faded illustration of an 80s dude in Raybans, clasping a large milk shake drawn on white paper, added in by George.
George opened the milk bar in 1952 and worked there every day until he passed away in May 2015 at the age of 92. In the 50s he was one of the many Greek migrants who ran milk bars across the suburbs, many of them near the local cinemas that were also once plentiful. That the Rio, like its prominent inner-west neighbour the Olympia, had such longevity seemed like a kind of magic.
Recent pasts are all around us, in bits and pieces, traces and rumours, but there are increasingly fewer places where it’s possible to enter their atmospheres. One of the few places where the recent past is preserved is Sydney’s old shops – the milk bars, shoe repairs, barbers and delis that have remained unchanged for decades. They seem charmed, as though their surprising persistence has made them eternal. But over the last few years many of the stalwarts have gone. The Oceanic Cafe in Surry Hills recently closed after being open since the 1930s, after the death of Nellie, the owner. The real estate sign on the roof has SOLD emblazoned across it, but the details inside are still as ever: the hat hooks on the walls and the Tip Top chalkboard with the daily specials, beef rissoles and lamb’s fry.
The Rio has been closed for almost a month now. In the days after George’s death people left flowers on the milk bar’s doorstep. In that same week news articles, radio shows and online commentary paid tribute to his long life and dedication to his store and community. Now things at the Rio are still. The store still looks as it has for so many decades, with its blue and white paint and twinkling tinfoil decorations. At night the shop is dark apart from the one lighted sign, promising Sweets and Smokes to the empty street.