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Who’s Afraid of the Self-Serve Liquor Store?

An LCBO employee tests out the first self-serve liquor store in Metropolitan Toronto. The Telegram, February 22, 1969.

The provincial government has recently mused about loosening Ontario’s liquor laws to allow greater mobility at outdoor festivals and other special events for those with a beverage in hand. We shouldn’t expect any rapid changes though—alterations to liquor regulations in Ontario have historically involved baby steps.
For decades after prohibition was dropped in Ontario, the government devised numerous methods of making drinking as unattractive as possible, from tight restrictions regarding service in beer parlours to requiring that Ontarians hold permits to purchase alcohol. A heavy-handed, thou-shalt-not attitude reigned supreme.
By the late 1960s, customers tired of having to purchase liquor by going into an LCBO store, signing a slip, and handing it to a clerk to retrieve their purchase, which was presented to them shamefully in a paper bag. As one customer put it, the process “makes you feel like a criminal or something. It’s a lot of nonsense.” Some clerks agreed, as they accepted slips signed by noted Torontonians like Donald Duck. Creating conditions which tut-tutted the public for wanting to buy liquor could only go on so long while the times were a-changin’.

Headline, the Telegram, July 23, 1968.

On July 23, 1968, provincial secretary Robert Welch announced that the province was launching a comprehensive review of the liquor laws. Plans to open three test “self-serve” liquor stores in Etobicoke, North York, and Weston the following year were unveiled, along with hints of studies into extending drinking hours on the weekend (which thanks to Sunday blue laws meant last call on Saturday was at 11:30 p.m.), lowering the drinking age (which occurred in 1971) and selling beer in grocery stores (which, unless you’re a fan of near beer, hasn’t happened yet). Welch felt that these changes were necessary to prove to younger Ontarians that “we are hip and relevant” (when asked if he was concerned about dropping the drinking age from twenty-one to eighteen, Welch replied “I’ve got more confidence in young persons’ approach to drinking than I have in some people who are sixty-one”).
The Weston store, located in a privately-built structure at 40 South Station Street, was the first of the initial trio of self-service locations to go into service. As its opening in February 1969 neared, the Telegram offered a glimpse of what customers would find inside:

The customer will enter through a turnstile, select the bottles of his choice and leave through one of five desks. Two walls are now lined with rum and Canadian whiskys and there are three islands of shelves loaded with liqueurs, brandies and other hard exotics. A separate room, panelled and ornamented with wine barrels, contains a wide range of wines.

Interior shot taken during the store preview. The Weston Times, February 27, 1969.

The store’s initial selection included eight hundred brands of hard liquor which, in the eyes of the Telegram, were arranged “like brazen hussies in a nightclub.” Two consultants, easily identified by their green blazers, were available to guide customers through the one-hundred-and-seventy Canadian and one-hundred-and-forty imported varieties of wine. If a consultant wasn’t around, cards were placed under each type of wine to indicate their level of sweetness. Among the remaining store staff were three part-time clerks that the Telegram claimed were the first female employees to work in a liquor store. None of the items on the shelf required a signed slip for purchase.
Opponents of self-service argued it was one more step in allowing too much permissiveness in society, which opened the door to more ruined lives and social depravity. Typical of the responses from those who disagreed with the concept was that of Reverend Gordon Brown of Runnymede Baptist Church, who felt easier access to alcohol would raise the crime rate (“It’s definitely a retrograde move. Criminality is related to alcohol”). Temperance advocates and religious organizations who worked with alcoholics feared that drunk driving incidents would skyrocket. Opposition also came from within the LCBO, namely clerks at existing stores. “It’ll never work,” said Bill Reed, a clerk at the liquor store at York and Wellington streets. He told the Telegram that “it won’t reduce the number of staffers required, it won’t be any faster—if anything, it’ll be slower and there will be a lot of shoplifting.” To combat shoplifters, and any temperance zealots tempted to wander in to smash the inventory, mirrors were set up around the Weston store for staff to monitor any fishy activity.
Seventeen eager customers were waiting outside the door when the store officially opened at 10 a.m. on February 24. One minute later, the first paying customer departed. Weston resident and trucking firm operator Douglas Wardrope put historical significance ahead of what was actually in his paper bag. “I’m not even sure of what I got,” he told the Star. “I guess I just wanted to be first.” (For the record, he bought a $2.55 bottle of Canadian whisky.) Wardrope raved about the new store, especially how fast he was in and out.

40 South Station Street as it looks today. Photo by Cherri Hurst/Weston Historical Society.

Customers in Weston weren’t the only beneficiaries of change that day. In the traditional counter-service liquor stores and Brewers’ Retail outlets, the hated slips were amended so that signatures were no longer required—customers just filled in their brand preference. While self-service would prove the dominant form of store, it took twenty-five years before the last of the counter service stores was phased out. As for that first self-serve store, the site is currently occupied by the Islamic Education Guidance Center.
Additional information from the July 24, 1968 edition of the Globe and Mail; the July 24, 1968, February 20, 1969, February 21, 1969, and February 23, 1969 editions of the Toronto Star; and the February 21, 1969 and February 22, 1969 editions of the Telegram.


  • tomwest

    I like LCBO stores – the fact they are a monopoly mean they try extra hard to carry a wide range of products. In Ontario it's easy to find more obscure products that simply aren't available in provinces where privately owned stores cater only to the most popular tastes.

    That said: I would much prefer being able to buy alcohol as as part of my normal grocery shopping, rather than having to make seperate trek to another store. In that sense, we haven't changed from slip-signing days.

    While we're about it, can we change to law banning public consumption of alcohol to just ban public drunkeness instead? Or is the thought of people sitting on the beach enjoying a quiet beer taken from the cooler utterly outrageous?

  • HotDang

    You can consume in public; no one ever does anything about it. Consider this: the police have a habit of looking the other way when someone is smoking the reefer. It would be hypocritical of them to curtail the consumption of alcohol while covertly condoning cannabis.

  • Joel

    Uhh they absolutely do enforce open alcohol laws, especially on long weekends. A few years ago I was given a ticket because I stepped about a foot off of the front lawn at a friends place with an open beer. I wasn't intoxicated at all, I had actually just arrived. Two cops came running with flashlights, thinking I was underage. When my ID proved I wasn't they gave me a ticket for open alcohol instead and poured my beer down the sewer.

    Last year a buddy of mine was fined at Pinery Provincial Park for having a can of beer on the beach as well.

  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    “…the fact they are a monopoly mean they try extra hard to carry a wide range of products.”

    On the contrary: the fact they are a monopoly means they don't have to carry a wide variety of products because consumers have nowhere else to go for (non-beer) alcohol.

  • Nenad Vidovic

    don't do it in front of the cops?

  • drybrain

    Having lived in Alberta, I have to disagree. A decent-sized liquor store in Calgary or Edmonton will have loads of wines, craft brews from across Canada, and a decent selection of hard liquor.

    The LCBO also has shorter hours and fewer locations (a liquor store shouldn't be a 20-30 minute walk away when you live downtown. but if you live in, say, Little Italy, where I do, it may be.)

    There are some liquor stores with weak selections, but then, there are expecially weak LCBOs as well.

    It ought to be entirely privatized–the bulk of the government revenue comes from taxes on liquor products, which would still be levied, so there's really no big loss.

  • Roy Murray

    I like the idea of the LCBO. It restricts the amount of alcohol available to minors and drunks. Maybe it shouldn't be easy to get alcohol; have you ever been to the U.K.? The LCBO provides employment well above minimum wage for thousands. Unfortunately, becoming an employee there is more and more difficult; my sister-in-law was a part-time cashier (39.5 hours a week) until she put in 9 years with them.

  • Joel

    I didn't, on purpose. I had no idea they were there. They were on foot and watching me from down the street. I was walking to get my cell phone from a person who had it across the street. As soon as I stepped off the property line they came running. I know not to do it in front of cops, and I honestly don't try to do it at all, I was simply replying to the comment made above saying police don't enforce the open alcohol law.

    Same thing on the beach, we were sitting on a log watching the water and they came up from behind us. Both times nobody was intoxicated and we were just minding our own business.

  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    And, at least they aren't owned by a bunch of foreign companies.

  • tomwest

    It's currently illegal to alcohol to minors and drunks, and I assume that would still be the case with priviate liqour stores. That's what restricts the amount of alcohol to minors and drunks, not the government monpoloy on non-bar retail sales.

  • tomwest

    … they don't have to, but they seem to anyways. I've seen obscure stuff on sale in small stores which my wife said she could never find while living in Alberta.

  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    That may say more about the stores in Alberta than the LCBO. You aren't going to find smaller vintages or brands that can't meet the LCBO's stock volume requirements, or retail far above the LCBO's general clientele. I've been told by wino/foodie friends and family that when it comes to foreign alcohol, we generally get the dregs.

  • MichaelOrnot

    The benefit of the LCBO is that they are the world's largest importer of wine and spirits – a position they use to OUR advantage by being able to bring in obscure and small-lot products without making the costs too ridiculous. they don't have to, but they do. Being a public corporation means they don't have to be solely ruled by profit margins.
    They use their monopoly to improve the supply, not to coerce the customer as a captive audience. To see the matter in black-and-white terms of public and private, monopoly and competition, is to over-simplify the question.

  • MichaelOrnot

    The law would be the same, but the level of oversight would be very different. Would you really prefer to take on the costs of trying to regulate and enforce a whole bunch of small businesses?

  • torontothegreat

    They seem to manage just fine elsewhere in Canada and around the world. I don't think Ontario has any statistics to prove your point at all.

  • tomwest

    Also, we seem to manage to regulate and enforce a whole bunch of small businesses selling tobacco and lottery tickets (which are also age-limited) without major issues.

  • tomwest

    We've obviously had different experiences… clearly both LCBO and priavte stores vary hugely.
    Pet peeve: I have yet to find an LCBO store selling B.C. wine. (Also, the LCBO seems to think that bottling the wine in Ontario somehow makes it “Ontario wine”).

  • nevilleross

    Technically, it is Ontario wine, since it's bottled locally.

  • John Duncan

    As with others, I'd like to see beer & wine sold in grocery stores here at the very least. And a relaxation of our public consumption laws, at least to the point where patios don't need to be fenced in.

    But I don't know that I'd use the success of corner store cigarette and lottery ticket sales as an argument. Cigarettes seem much easier for underage folks to get a hold of than booze. And you're not going to be able to claim any big prize from a lottery ticket without some very convincing ID.

  • John Duncan

    As with others, I'd like to see beer & wine sold in grocery stores here at the very least. And a relaxation of our public consumption laws, at least to the point where patios don't need to be fenced in.

    But I don't know that I'd use the success of corner store cigarette and lottery ticket sales as an argument. Cigarettes seem much easier for underage folks to get a hold of than booze. And you're not going to be able to claim any big prize from a lottery ticket without some very convincing ID.

  • David Toronto

    Did you notice another change in retailing? In the second photo
    you can see an ashtray at the end of the display.
    Imagine! smoking in a liquor store.

  • Guest

    what an irony, an Islamic center in a liquor store.