When I was a kid, I would accompany my father in his white Volkswagen Beetle (AKA Herbie) as he ran his weekly errands. Our first stop was the local I.D.A., at which he would purchase one carton of Rothman’s Blue, king size. (Remember when you could still buy cigarettes at drugstores?) The next stop was the gas station on Dundas Street, which charged fractionally less than the others in the neighbourhood and which almost certainly inspired my life-long love of the smell of gasoline. When Herbie’s tank was full, we’d drive directly across the street to the government-run Brewer’s Retail outlet to return my dad’s empties and pick up that week’s case of beer.
The outlet was a small, boxy building that was surrounded on three sides by a considerably larger parking lot. You entered the building through an automated door on its right-hand side, which led to a conveyor belt comprised of several hundred small steel discs. As though by instinct, you would set down your case of empties on the belt and roll them forward to the cash counter, where a government employee was waiting to count the number of bottles being returned and to calculate the amount of your refund. The empties would then be rolled further along the conveyor belt, through a two-by-three foot opening in the rear wall and into a tantalizingly mysterious back room.
Clasping a handful of change, you would walk across the brown-tiled floor to a second cash counter, where a second government employee waited to take your order. “A two-four of Labatt 50, please,” you would say, and the employee would repeat the words into a microphone which transmitted them into the back room. Several seconds later, your two-four would emerge from another two-by-three foot opening in the wall, and roll, rather too quickly, along its own steel conveyor belt to the spot where you stood anticipating its arrival. The belt led inexorably toward an automated exit door, through which you would finally depart, your chilled two-four cradled protectively under your arm.
I was thus entranced by the sounds of the Brewer’s Retail outlet: the mechanical wheeze of the doors as they opened and shut; the chorus of exclusively male voices which enounced the transactions; the strange, flat echo of the order clerk’s microphone. But the sound that dominated all others was the near-constant polyphony of the conveyor belt, which married the clatter of the rotating steel discs with the jittery percussion of bottle sounding against bottle. On a busy Saturday afternoon, when seemingly every red-blooded Canadian man within a twenty-block radius was stocking up on 50 for the weekend, the sound of each rolling case of beer would waterfall into the next, building into amazing crescendos of metallic noise.
There are, of course, no Brewer’s Retail outlets in Québec, and although I far prefer the convenience of being able to buy beer at my corner dépanneur, I do occasionally miss the sound of them. A revamped version of the outlets, snappily renamed The Beer Store and now privately-owned, still exists in Ontario, but I suspect it is only a matter of time before they are phased out in favour of a Québec-style system. So they’re not quite obsolete yet, but I think it is fair to call them a dying – and quintessentially Canadian – breed.