On a chilly Wednesday afternoon in late September, almost three weeks after Iqaluit’s beer and wine store first opened its doors, I’m surprised to find there’s no line.
After years of debate, a municipal plebiscite, and despite fierce opposition from some big-name politicians and longtime residents who argued local sales would only encourage more drinking and aggravate substance abuse problems in the community, the store had finally become a reality. And the line was already something of a local legend.
In its first four days, the store burned through ten-percent of the booze it expected to sell all year. On its first Saturday, lines snaked away from the green building—still missing part of its siding—and people dug in for hours. Where some see drudgery, others see opportunity. Cindy Rennie brought down her barbeque and sold chilidogs, coffee, tea, pop and gave away free ‘river water’ to the huddled masses. She also offered to hold spots in line for $10. Soon after, a Facebook page called “The Line Up” was created to crowdsource updates on line lengths and wait times.
The store altered the rhythm of life in Iqaluit. Its opening had been bad for cabbies, good for delivery drivers. Instead of going out for a beer, people chose to stay home and order in.
Before the store, Iqalungmiut had to tolerate a classic Northern rigmarole to buy a case of beer or a bottle of wine, by ordering it from a government warehouse in Rankin Inlet. (Rankin residents still order their alcohol from the Iqaluit warehouse. This is meant to ensure equal access in all Nunavut communities that allow liquor.) Iqalungmiut could also bring a token amount home from the south, or order it—after filing a permit—by plane or sealift. The only other alternatives were drinking beer at a bar or less legal options like finding a bootlegger or getting a friend to ship you some.
All that trouble meant having a beer in your fridge was a precious—albeit consumable—commodity. Offering a drink to a guest was not an insignificant show of hospitality. It could even be a friendship accelerator. I spent a summer in Iqaluit nearly ten years ago and a friend from an airline hooked me up with a couple flats of beer. I couldn’t help but notice my stock rise. Now all you had to do was get through the line.
I walk into the building to find an application form waiting on a counter. (You have to register to make a purchase here.) In two minutes, I have filled out my name, address and contact info. I meander through a cordoned maze and begin to read through the list of beer and wine items on a wall-mounted television screen. “Next!” I hear, before I’m even halfway through.
I present my form and ID to the cheery young woman behind the counter. “No line?” I ask.
“Yeah, it’s been pretty slow today.”
She enters my information and asks what I want. Her co-worker disappears into the warehouse and returns less than a minute later with one six-pack of Kokanee, one six-pack of the fancier Goose Island IPA. (There’s a daily limit of 12 beers and two bottles of wine.) He packs them carefully, one on top of the other, sliding them into a brown paper bag that I’ll later recognize everywhere—conspicuous with paper handles that make it look like a boutique shopping bag.
“Will it be busy after work?”
“Very busy,” she says.
And that’s that. I walk out with beers in hand, for about the same price I would pay in Yellowknife. I cram the beers into the fridge. I will drink one later, to unwind after a long day. I will bring some to a party that weekend. And then I will leave a few beers as a parting gift to a friend who let me stay at his place for the week. It will dawn on me later that the gesture means much less than it did one month before.