Abar's Tavern on Riverside Drive, East Windsor, early '40's. (PHOTO: Windsor Star)
To coincide with the publication of Maiden Lane, I was asked by my publisher, Dundurn Press, to write a short piece on the current debate surrounding the availability of alcohol outside the usual inconveniences. It was originally posted pre-Victoria Day weekend on their blog, but I thought I might share it here.
With Victoria Day – also known as the May 2-4 weekend – approaching, I couldn’t resist commenting on recent developments in beer retail here in Ontario.
Since my crime fiction series, Border City Blues, is set during the Prohibition years along the border between Windsor and Detroit, I thought I’d start with a flashback. It was ninety years ago the province loosened its grip on the taps and allowed the sale of 4.4% beer, but not without some conditions. The Border Cities Star, May 2, 1925:
“The attorney general was emphatic that bars would not be tolerated. Under the proposed regulations, rooms in which the drink is sold must be open to the street, and he has already inspected some plans of alternations to be made by hotel-men.
“In one case the plans called for fixed tables on one side of a room and movable ones on the other, the fixed ones being approved because the backs of the stalls in which they were placed would not be high enough to conceal those seated at the tables.”
Was Prohibition’s dam crumbling? One could only hope. The Border Cities Star, May 20, 1925:
“It is worthy of notice that, under the amendment to the [Temperance Act], no other place in the community is permitted to sell any beverage containing more than two and a half per cent proof. Everything over that quantity sold on premises other than those properly licensed is regarded as ‘liquor.’ No beer of any description may be sold elsewhere on the border tomorrow than in the places specified.
“Prices are still somewhat uncertain in some of the hotels, depending as they must upon the size of the glasses in which the beverage is to be served. There are none of the old-time schooners left, as far as can be discovered, and the supply of regular beer glasses not large. Hotels will have to estimate to the capacity of their containers.”
For purveyors of brewed beverages, an eyedropper, beaker, and a measuring tape — government approved — were likely essential. Now let’s jump to 21st century Ontario. On April 16 it was reported that grocers would soon be allowed to stock beer, some grocers, that is. Only 450 licenses will be granted. Also, the store will have to be “big enough to set up a separate area for the beer,” and the location of the beer sold will have to keep the same hours as the Beer Store. Not only that, the stores will only be permitted to sell beer in single bottles and 6-packs. Any violation would likely result in the grocer’s establishment being wrapped in crime scene tape.
There will be a new beer tax, of course. And rather than purchase their stock directly from brewers, the grocers will have to buy it from the LCBO, so costs will be layered in. Apparently Queen’s Park has some bills to pay. Convenience stores are being shut out of the deal. It was decided that it would “not be a socially responsible decision.” They’re left to selling sodium-enriched crispy snacks and glucose-fructose rich soft drinks.
The cynicism and hypocrisy that drives Ontario’s decades-long addiction to Prohibition is enough to drive anyone to drink. Ontario isn’t clutching its pearls so much as it’s clutching its dollars. I’ve lately gotten the impression that beer sales here are more strictly regulated than the disposal of nuclear waste.
Still, I’ll raise a glass this May 2-4 weekend either because it’s the birthday of my hometown or maybe because I’d just like to relax and celebrate the end of another long winter.
Copyright Michael Januska, 2015