Little Details (8/27/09)

Aug. 27, 2009

No place like Skals

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

Skal’s Lounge sat on the corner of Central and Walnut streets in my hometown on Boston’s North Shore. It was a few doors down from the “package store,” local parlance for a liquor store. Close proximity and somewhat complementary hours insured easy access to booze despite Massachusetts’ Puritan-rooted Blue Laws limiting alcohol sales.

I lived on Central Street and remember distinctly the sights and smells I passed as I walked downtown to the Peabody Institute Library. Inebriated men sat in the doorway of a long-closed cobbler shop with dirty windows, unshaven and aromatic. The occasional whiff of urine reinforced a “booze is bad” view of my world. Looking back, I’m struck by the number of alcohol establishments tucked in between churches, schools, houses and convenience stores.

Tiny bottles of Seagrams and other high octane spirits littered the sidewalk at certain points. I remember stepping over them gingerly when wearing summer sandals. These “nips,” as they were called, perched near registers in liquor stores, satisfied those aching for a swig but lacking funds for a full-blown drunken haze. Alcohol-infused elixirs offered a quick fix, something to take the edge off a less-than-ideal existence.

Skal’s Lounge, with its smoke-stained curtains, held a sort of macabre fascination for me. I would never ever venture inside, although I always peeked in as I passed by. If the door opened in winter, the smell of alcohol blended with cigar and cigarette smoke spilled out. In summer, the door left open onto the sidewalk revealed dim silhouettes of men leaning over the bar. The aroma, simultaneously pungent and sweet, can still be conjured in my olfactory memory. I’ve never experienced that unique infusion of flavors anywhere but outside Skal’s stoop.

My high school history teacher, Mr. Metropolis, worked the Dead Man’s Shift — 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. — at a Peabody leather factory while in college. He spoke of the 2 a.m. “coffee break,” during which workers from nearby Walnut Street would traipse over to Skal’s to swig vodka with a raw egg suspended in the glass. The egg, I suppose, was for protein for the hard physical labor required of their shift.

My dad worked in the leather shops on Walnut Street when he first came to America. His straight-laced, church-on-Sunday persona makes me think he wasn’t one to frequent the bars near the factories. He certainly didn’t do that when I was a kid. My dad wasn’t a big drinker. Maybe that’s why he moonlighted as a bartender. He could handle being literally surrounded by the stuff for hours, without temptation.

My sisters and I would pass a different bar on the way to school. Violet’s Lounge was seemingly more upscale. It had to be — it was right around the corner from our church. The proprietors, the Sobocinski family, were the ones who picked up my father from a pier in Boston when he arrived on a refugee ship in 1949. As I child, I understood we had a special connection to them.

We’d pass Violet’s Lounge on our walks to school, to church and on our annual trek on Halloween to Gardner Street, a row of fancy houses. Gardner Street was the hub of Halloween activity in our part of town — kind of like South Ridge here in Williston.

One year, I was perhaps 6 or 7, I insisted we step into the bar to get some Halloween candy. My father relented and let us walk in wearing plastic masks and satiny costumes bought at Kresge’s Five and Dime. We spouted out with youthful vigor, “Trick or treat!” No response.

We must have looked bizarre — four little girls with trick or treat bags in a bar. The bartender stared at us, flummoxed. Finally, an older man seated on a stool, wearing a longish coat, reached into his pocket and threw some quarters on the counter. He handed each of us a small package of peanuts, the super salty ones I loved as a kid. We offered up high-pitch thank yous and proceeded to Gardner Street to load up on Sugar Babies, Snickers and Red Hots. I’d learned my lesson and didn’t ask to stop in the bar the following Halloween.

Skal’s, Tanners’ Cafe, Violet’s and the Courthouse Pub are just a few of the bars I remember from childhood. With a limited number of liquor licenses to go around, I wonder why they seemed so plentiful.

Skal’s is now a Brazilian steakhouse. Violet’s is long gone. Tanners’ Café recently closed, its liquor licensed bequeathed to yet another “package” store in town. Even in adulthood, I’m not drawn to bars. I guess I have good old Skal’s to thank for that.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or