Who's Afraid of the Self-Serve Liquor Store?
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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.