In this post I’ll be speaking directly from personal experiences of slinging booze and how I, over the years, have not been able to stop myself from seeing my world of work through an anthropological lens.
First, a brief description of the bar to set the scene:
On entry the bar is dark and its wood paneling, teal velvet and painted brick, gold lamé curtains and pink neon light tie together a paradoxically obvious and non-specific nostalgic aesthetic. The bar staff and owners are all women, ranging from 22-34 years old, and they stand behind a long bar that takes up much of the space, making sitting at the bar the most obvious option for positioning oneself in the space. Lone customers and regulars always make for those bar stools, whereas those in groups might order standing at the bar and then move collectively to a table outside or to a booth by the window. The bar has 4 beer taps served only in schooners, a large volume of a small range of tinnies (canned beer), liquor for cocktail-making and shot-taking, and a growing number of hats stacked in high places to serve the sartorial whims of the bar team.
From my side of the bar I watch a steady stream of people, known and unknown, come through the front door every night. It is my job to serve them what they order, yes, but more so it is my job to maintain a particular social environment. This is an environment of alcohol consumption practices, social relations on both sides of the bar and the spatial realm of the bar itself, unspoken rules, and unexpected forms of community and ritual.
For some, the fact that we don’t sell pub staple Carlton Draught is disorientating. For others, a lack of high-end whiskey is a disappointment. Many are more than happy to just choose from what we stock with no expectations. The process of ordering is a kind of negotiation in which the customer indicates preferences, and the bartender sells them whatever experience the bar can offer as closest fitting to those preferences.
The bar top itself is the site of exchange of alcohol for money, but also a site in which social relations are mediated: a safe barrier between bartender and stranger, a place for regulars and bartenders to lean in and exchange affection, even a platform on which to dance where both bartender and regular can be raised up above the room in a joyous performance of territorial freedom. It’s a place where payment is occasionally even waived for ‘friends of the bar’. These are our long term customers, our friends and family, and the local network of other bartenders and bar owners (who also have a Facebook group to warn of troublesome customers leaving venues and what direction they are headed, to ask for advice and to raise community issues). Over the years working in several bars I’ve noticed that nearly all of these instances of giving, or gifting, rather than selling are done through the medium of shots. They’re quick to pour, and after one customary tap on the bar top, they’re quick to drink. Shots are how we show affection and gratitude. When the bar team huddles together on a busy night after one of us queries ‘Morale?’, shots are how we bolster our team spirit and ward off weariness.
There have been varied anthropological studies of drinking culture and the bar environment, and some have even been corporately commissioned by breweries and distilleries to investigate how sales actually work in individualised bar environments. The reason that these sales vary, surely, is because bars are not universally identical spaces with a common clientele. I believe the environment of a bar can support as much of a community as a church, with a similarly regular rotation of social interactions, support for personal issues, and a safe space to meet. Granted, this community’s binding ritual practice is the consumption of alcohol rather than any spiritual worship.
So, where is the line between capital-driven hospitality and a community? In my current family-like environment, my job often feels like a mutual investment in our community that each of our small team is committed to. The sales philosophy is implicitly based on building relationships. The business makes the most out of a harshly capitalistic system by refusing to aspire to unlimited growth and corporate empire, instead privileging locality and familiarity by catering to a clientele who share similar values.
And a note to first year anthropology students:
Make the most of what you start to see from anthropological perspectives in your everyday life. The ‘field’ does not have to be some far off village, or even your neighbor’s backyard. Your backyard is a great place to start!
Wilson, T. M. (2005) Drinking cultures : alcohol and identity. Berg.