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Remembering the Milk Bar

By Susanne Lane

The Milk Bar defined the AUB experience for many generations of students. Susanne Lane discovers why it holds a special place for countless alumni and finds out if a similar student hangout exists today.

On his first visit in many years, an old friend and former AUB student returned to Beirut recently. When we met to talk about what he planned to do while he was here, stopping in at the University’s Milk Bar was at the top of his list. Despite having spent the last two years at AUB, I had never heard of the Milk Bar. Given the enthusiasm with which he talked about it, I hated being the one to tell him that there was no longer a milk bar at the University. (Actually I have since learned that the snack bar on lower campus at the bottom of the stairs in front of the Biology Building is also called the Milk Bar.) But, I was curious. What was a milk bar and why was it called that? When I asked around, many faculty members and administrators looked at me wistfully. It was clear that its absence had left a hole in campus life.

What’s a milk bar?
Milk bars have been described as small town corner stores. Gordon Woolf, author of How to Buy, Run and Sell a Milk Bar, describes a long list of services that used to be provided by milk bars: “it is where people stop to find out where a street is, or to ask where someone lives because they forgot to bring the address with them; it is where people who live on their own find a rare opportunity to have a conversation, even though, as a shop gets busier, it is
a very short one; it is where mum can ring up with half a dozen things she forgot to tell her son or daughter to get so we can add them to the shopping list when they are still there.”

As he describes the old milk bars that were once prevalent in England, Woolf takes you back to a different time, a slower time. If you were in a rush, you didn’t stop off at the milk bar. These days, as a way to encourage young people to consume more milk, the British Milk Development Council is setting up milk bars in schools across England and Wales. Which makes it sound like milk bars are purely functional now.

The Ada Dodge Milk Bar
At AUB, the milk bar that everyone remembers was the coffee shop that once existed in Ada Dodge Hall. And it acquired the “milk bar” appellation, it seems, from the British troops who were stationed in Lebanon during World War II. Ann Kerr, in her book Come with Me from Lebanon (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1994), describes it as “the campus snack shop on the second floor of the student union building, a short walk from College Hall and a popular hangout for students and faculty.” No one is really sure when it opened or when or why it closed. Some say it was closed after College Hall was bombed in 1991 because the space was needed for offices. Others will tell you that it was closed in the late 1980s to reduce costs.

Old pictures in Al-Kulliyeh show a big room divided by wonderful arches, with old lamps hanging low from the ceiling. Marwan Ghandour, who is currently a senior lecturer in architecture and graphic design and an AUB alumnus, says that the Ada Dodge Milk Bar used to be completely open to an adjacent terrace with unusually wide arches: “one vaulted space with full glazing on three sides.” He talks about its “strategic in-between location and the outside-inside openness that made it a special place on campus.”

What people remember most is how conducive its atmosphere was to university life. The Milk Bar was where students fell in love, argued about politics, wrestled with ideas, or simply enjoyed the pleasure of each other’s company. It was where many a professor stopped by every morning to buy a doughnut or cinnamon roll. One alumnus, Vahan Zanoyan, describes the “making of Arabic coffee to order, with several brass coffee pots all going at the same time—no sugar, medium sugar, boiled well, boiled less…Imagine a cafeteria where you get in line with a tray as you do at any other cafeteria in the world, but it’s not like any other cafeteria in the world. At this cafeteria, you order a Turkish coffee to taste, and it reaches the cashier the same time you do!”

Then there were the people who worked at the Milk Bar. Ann Kerr mentions the “young waiter with a big smile” who came to take their order when she and Malcolm (her future husband and former AUB president) visited the Milk Bar. She describes how that “same smile on an increasingly older face was to greet us each time we went back to Beirut over the next decades, though in time he graduated from the Milk Bar to the faculty dining room.”

Nothing has really taken the place of the Milk Bar on upper campus—or of Faisal’s and Uncle Sam’s across the street from the Main Gate, two legendary hangouts that all prewar AUBites will always remember. Faisal’s restaurant closed sometime in the early 1980s and has been replaced by a McDonald’s; and Uncle Sam’s is now a sandwich shop named Baguette.

Today’s hang-outs
There are lots of places around AUB to grab something to eat or have a quick cup of coffee. Other than the two mentioned above, Bliss Street is lined with an array of such spots, including a Starbuck’s, Socrate’s, Bliss House, Burger King, Al Pasha, CinnZeo, Cinnabuns—I could go on and on. But, it is not the same.

What’s the difference? For a start, the Milk Bar was on campus. Then, there is the architecture (those arches and low-hanging lamps) and, for those who took the time to notice, the views. It is funny how often a conversation about AUB and what makes it so special comes back to the views. The trees have grown too tall now, but at one time you could see the Mediterranean from the Milk Bar window.

Looking Ahead
So, will the Milk Bar ever return to upper campus? Souheir Mabsout, assistant director of the Department of Facilities Planning and Design, says that the reintroduction of the Milk Bar to Ada Dodge Hall is mentioned in the AUB Campus Master Plan (the 20-year comprehensive plan of building, renovation, and landscape design that was launched a couple of years ago). At least one member of the Plan’s Steering Committee, Associate Professor Howayda Al Harithy, is supportive of the idea. “I think the campus needs many more social spaces, especially spaces that have an outside-inside spatial flow to them. The weather in Beirut is great most of the year and the green campus is a joy, so the flow and extension of spaces into the outdoor platforms, green landscape, and views is a must. This corner is special that way. It is also strategic in location.”

So, there is hope. Maybe some day those of you who return to the campus for a visit with your children will be able to enjoy a cup of coffee at the Ada Dodge Milk Bar—and those of us who are still here will get to see for ourselves what the fuss was all about.