‘The previous owners, Norm and Anna Daher ran the shop for 25 years and were not really looking to sell. Eventually Norm agreed to hand me the baton only if I agreed to continue to care for the community as they had done,’ Lisette explained.
In six years, Lisette, an architect by trade, has gone from the stressful corporate world to the beating heart of East Melbourne.
As one of the few remaining traditional milk bars in inner Melbourne, the East Melbourne General Store on the surface serves the community as a café, nursery, grocery store and bottle shop.
But, under Lisette’s stewardship the store has also expanded into a major community hub, connecting people in remarkable ways.
It is a safe place for older residents to leave a copy of their house keys, and also acts as an emergency contact linked to personal emergency alarms.
It is a drop-off point for meals for local not-for-profit The Humble Mission, providing meals and groceries for people who are sleeping rough.
It collects books from the community to donate to 123Read2Me, a free children’s book charity.
Lisette also supports young people living in local share houses, especially those relocating from regional areas or interstate.
Acting as their ‘Melbourne auntie’ she provides opportunities for social interaction and meet-ups at the store, through to lending a baking mixer or a ladder to change a light bulb.
Store staff are also equipped to respond to, and support, people in the community who are living with mental health challenges, having participated in mental health training provided by St Vincent’s Hospital professionals for free.
‘We have many older people who come in every day and just buy a newspaper. Because I see them every day I can also see if they have had a fall, if they are getting frailer, if there are any changes in their behaviour. For example, are they finding it more difficult to count out their change?’
But it was during Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdowns that Lisette and the community forged immeasurable bonds tackling urgent physical and emotional needs.
Together with Sue Henderson and the East Melbourne Neighbourhood Network, Lisette got to work to craft a neighbourhood pandemic response, identifying the support needed especially for the older and most vulnerable residents.
‘People think East Melbourne is a very affluent area but statistically about 75 per cent of residences are apartments, many of which are small one bedrooms or bed sits. We have many single people, students and new migrants here. There is a lot of social isolation. When the pandemic began, a lot of our older residents were very afraid; they thought if they left the house they would catch COVID and drop dead.’
They set up the East Melbourne Emergency Response Group (EMERG) and notices were put up in the store asking for volunteers to help out in many different ways, including buddying up community members with each other.
‘It was fantastic for young people who were cooped up going crazy to get out and care for someone else they didn’t know. People really enjoyed each other’s company,’ Lisette said.
Lisette has continued the tradition established by the Daher family; living on the premises with her three children - who she says now have an entire suburb full of aunties and uncles - embracing the community connections and the responsibilities.
But as a business owner, especially recovering from COVID-19 lockdowns, to remain sustainable she needs more people both within and outside the neighbourhood to come to the store.
‘Please come and spend some money at my store! We have no shopping strip in East Melbourne so I’m revamping the store to have more things like books, potting mix, homewares and more. I want it to become like a country general store. I’m trying to be everything for everyone,’ Lisette added.
Lisette says the original milk bar signifiers – the Peter’s ice-cream cones – will remain on the store as will the 70s style apple cakes, hot pies and milkshakes, in keeping with an ‘old school’ level of service and community kindness.