Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Fern bars

NB: What follows is pure self indulgence. I'm starting a new book, writing not reading, this week and I mean to centre some of the action around a fern bar. This is the first of a series of posts in which I will just spill out what I remember about them.

I like bars just after they open for the evening. When the air inside is still cool and clean and everything is shiny and the barkeep is giving himself that last look in the mirror to see if his tie is straight and his hair is smooth. I like the neat bottles on the bar back and the lovely shining glasses and the anticipation. I like to watch the man mix the first one of the evening and put it down on a crisp mat and put the little folded napkin beside it. I like to taste it slowly. The first quiet drink of the vening in a quiet bar‚that's wonderful. 
As spoken by Terry Lennox in Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye
This is, as I say above, about what I remember, and what I think I remember, about fern bars. I mostly missed the fern bar thing because I was too young to drink legally during their heyday. I say mostly missed because many fern bars were also restaurants and I remember going for Sunday brunch with my parents in the early 1970s. Something about the atmosphere intrigued me. When I first started going to bars as a slightly under-aged drinker, I made a point of going to a fern bar, "Just to see what it was like."

When I could go in legally, fern bars were past their best before date. People made fun of them. I actually worked in one them briefly as the doorman—which is to say bouncer.

Here in Canada, there were once laws governing licensing bars that forbade institutions selling liquor from having windows you could see through. The idea was that if they couldn't ban alcohol consumption altogether, they could at least hide it from public view. Long after authorities stopped enforcing these laws, bars continued to be built such that you could not see into them. Even if the bar windows could be seen through, they were generally set up high enough that the patrons inside were not in direct line of sight of passing pedestrians.

Fern bars were the first bars in my town to break this barrier. They were set up so you could see right into them. They had to be if the ferns were to get enough light for, while ferns don't require a lot of light, they require some sunlight. As I remember it, ferns weren't de rigueur in fern bars. But even if it didn't have an actual potted fern, a good fern bar had to feel like it could have one if it wanted to.

I think the thing about them for me was that they seemed adult. One of the first ones to open in the town where I grew up was decorated like a library in an English country house. Or at least close enough to fool me—I've never been in an English country house. The other choices in my town were dives, pseudo-pubs, rock and roll palaces and discos. It just fit into a different category.


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  2. I realized after I sent my comment that you had already explained the history of fern bars. We don't have them here, the only time consumption of alcohol had to be hidden from public view was during Prohibition in the 1930s, when all alcohol was illegal.