Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A duck and a bulldog...

Longtime liquor store worker has seen it all in 51 years

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Bob Vanstone wanted to be a machinist.

It was a solid, reliable job for a young man just starting out. He was engaged. He had plans. He was a blue-collar guy and he wanted skills that would see him through life.

Then the machine shop he worked for was forced to lay off staff. At 21, he was junior. He was on the street and looking for a new job.

His girlfriend suggested he apply with the Manitoba Liquor Control Commission, where her dad worked. Vanstone was hired the same day.

His father, a Baptist minister, was horrified.

Fifty-one years later, Vanstone's still there. If the MLCC has a collective memory, the 72-year-old is it. He has worked in many of the outlets, most of which no longer exist.

He'll end his career, likely in April 2010, at the Portage and Burnell branch.

"Retirement scares me. What am I going to do all day? I don't have any great hobbies," he says. "Working keeps you younger."

Staying active has kept him sharp. He works with people who could be his grandchildren. He's also a timekeeper for minor hockey.

"It's just nice to talk to them, to find out what they're interested in."

He's the store's assistant manager, earning approximately $50,000 a year. He says he never wanted to be a store manager because he didn't want the headaches.

"I go on cash periodically. Most of it is back-office type of stuff, working on schedules, that sort of thing."

Vanstone remembers the early days, when drinking liquor was still viewed with a measure of disapproval. The bottles were secreted away in a back room. Customers took a stubby pencil and filled in their name, address and their selection on a slip of paper.

The paper was handed across a broad wooden counter to an employee. Money was counted out and the customer was handed a chit. A few steps over, another employee took the chit and went into the back to find the bottle.

"We didn't really look at the slips of paper," Vanstone say. "Everyone once in a while we had to. You'd have names like Queen Elizabeth and Elizabeth Taylor and ridiculous addresses."

The paper-slip system ended some time in the early '60s.

There were no free samples, no flavoured vodkas or vast selections of imported wine back then.

"When I first started, table wine was a nonentity," he says.

For the hard-core problem drinkers there was Branvin sherry. It sold for 90 cents a bottle.

On Fridays and Saturdays, he says, it wasn't unusual for his Donald and Ellice store to sell 1,000 bottles of the barely potable sherry a day.

Today, the trembly-handed will be waiting outside to pick up their first mickey of vodka or rye.

And what does the longtime employee drink in his off hours?

"I don't drink," he says. "I've got diabetes."

After 51 years on the job, Vanstone has some pretty good war stories to tell.

"The stores aren't as bad as they used to be," he says. "You'd get rowdy customers, people panhandling and threatening customers. It was bad downtown. It sometimes ended up outside. I never got in a fight. I had to break up a few."

There was the phone booth that used to be inside one North End location.

"We had to have it removed because of the hanky-panky."

And there was a large ashtray with a removable top that some intoxicated customers mistook for a toilet. They had a janitor for that problem, he says.

Then there's the one about the duck and the bulldog, a yarn he swears is true. It seems a man, a duck and a bulldog walked into a liquor store, he claims, duck first.

There's not a hint of a smile as he tells the tale. Darndest thing he ever saw.

There are challenges to his job. Telling an intoxicated person they can't buy more alcohol requires a certain finesse.

"They want to fight. You just try to reason with them. You tell them to go get a cup of coffee, maybe cool off a little."

Theft is a big problem, he says.

"If you see it, you just get it off them and tell them not to come back," he says. "If there's a person who has been stealing from a number of stores you can bar them. If they're barred, you can charge them with trespassing if they come in."

Shoplifters come from all walks of life and are all ages. He grins when he tells the story of a woman who, years ago, slipped a bottle under her top. Realizing she'd been spotted, she ditched it.

Confronted by a clerk who didn't realize she'd put the bottle back, she lifted her sweater.

"She had nothing on underneath," laughs Vanstone. "She said 'these are the only jugs I've got.' "

Most of the time, though, it's just average people coming in for a bottle.

"Ninety-nine per cent of them are so polite," he says. "They're friendly. Except for the ones who try to steal you blind, they're great."

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 6, 2009 B1

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About Lindor Reynolds

National Newspaper Award winner Lindor Reynolds began work at the Free Press as a 17-year-old proofreader. It was a rough introduction to the news business.

Many years later, armed with a university education and a portfolio of published work, she was hired as a Free Press columnist. During her 20-plus years on the job she has written for every section in the paper, with the exception of Business. She’ll get around to them some day.

Lindor has received considerable recognition for her writing. Her awards include the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ general interest award and the North American Travel Journalists Association top prize.
Her work on Internet luring led to an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada and her coverage of the child welfare system prompted a change to Manitoba Child and Family Services Act to make the safety of children paramount.

She has earned three citations of merit for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and has been awarded a Distinguished Alumni commendation from the University of Winnipeg. Lindor was also named a YMCA/YWCA  Woman of Distinction.

She is married with four daughters. If her house was on fire and the kids and dog were safe, she’d grab her passport.
 
lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

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