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  • Writer's picturePaige Latham Didora

what it was like to be a part of the four firkins (a eulogy of sorts)

surly tour

I had submitted my resume the very day the call went out, in early June of 2013. I even contacted an acquaintance who worked there, just to be sure my name wasn’t missed. But somehow it was, when threw my hat in the virtual ring, and when I followed up weeks later, I’m sure the idea of me sounded like an afterthought.

Surprised I was indeed when Bryan, fearless Firkins manager, called me as I was knuckles deep into a croissant at a loud café on Grand Avenue. He was calling to administer a pop beer quiz to me, a prospective employee.

It was about ten questions, ranging from particulars of beer styles, to storage, skunking, and food pairings. I answered, I sweated, I answered, heart racing. While I won’t say I was embarrassed by my performance, I most definitely screwed up. I believe I called a Dubbel German rather than Belgian and I punted on what to pair with bear stew.

I didn’t deserve the job, and I didn’t get it.

Say what you will about the beer quiz, whether elitist, petty, or a poor indication of a person’s knowledge. A few friends of mine used it to justify their misperceptions of the company as an old boy’s club. I didn’t feel any of these things. I was first sad, and then motivated to be better.

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It was only a few days until I ran into Jason Alvey at the Pride Dabbler beer festival. We weren’t personal friends at the time, but I had attended a few classes at the store and had been a regular (albeit a shy one) for years. We greeted each other and I asked, clearly crestfallen I’m sure, how many people had applied for the part-time positions. “Oh, about a dozen. Why?” When I responded that I was one of them but underperformed over the phone, he looked very surprised. To this day I am not sure why.

Weeks went by and I kept up my blog dutifully, which was then about a year old. I visited tap rooms, still a novel commodity in 2013, and documented as I went along, not forgetting my near-employment, but not dwelling on it either.

In late August I got a call from Alvey directly. He explained that he had some staff turnover as well as a need for more flexible part-timers. Rather than requesting an interview, he went on to say that I should come in and visit with him. If after we talked I still wanted it, the job was mine.

My first day was in early September. Armed with a price gun and a steep learning curve, all I wanted was to avoid saying something stupid or breaking anything. It was my first retail job – my background was at Punch Pizza and at my day job as a critical care nurse. Not too many skills overlapped, but I did my best.

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Let me be clear: I wasn’t fighting fires or talking jumpers off of bridges – my intent is not to color this as a stressful workplace, but nevertheless my performance was very important to me personally. Things weren’t always a breeze – a misguided customer who thought I couldn’t hold my own because of my gender, my own frustration with understanding the world of retail. More than once I thought, why not just stick to nursing and keep beer just a hobby?

Small businesses are like finicky plants and cultivating them is not for everyone. It takes incredible time, patience, and faith, to a degree that, even after working within one for years, I don’t understand. Miniscule details become magnified and the threat of a misstep can be paralyzing, but Alvey navigated with both grace and conviction. The full-time staff had the leadership and sense of humor to prevent things from becoming monotonous or complacent.

And in time, Alvey’s pride became mine. “They” became “we”, and I recognized myself as an ambassador of the company. People would ask me personally what we had in stock or for dinner party advice time and time again, outside of work.

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The Four Firkins was beloved by many. I came to know dozens of regular customers by name and have spent time with some outside of the store. I have been gifted with meals, tickets, advice, and friendship more that I ever could have imagined on the day I flunked the beer quiz. Not only do I know the beer preferences of so many of these neighbors (I hate hops! Gluten-free! German hefeweizens!), I’ve met their kids and empathized in their hardships.

I will never forget when I rang up a woman who seemed in an anxious frenzy throughout the store but became somehow collected and calm as she handed me some cash. “Trying some new beers?” I inquired, gesturing at her mix of singles and bombers, all in good taste. She looked me right in the eyes, and half smiling, said “I am helping a girlfriend celebrate. She just moved to escape her abusive husband.”

Of course this is on the extreme end of the spectrum, but not to the degree you might imagine. Much like a hairdresser or manicurist, my time at the Firkins became part of the rhythm of the lives of others, and more often than not, those lives were messy.

Belgium meets FF

The weeks leading up to the closure were terrible. Knowing what was on the horizon but keeping it under wraps was painful. Sure, hearing some of the bitter remarks now surfacing in the community isn’t easy either, but it is nothing compared to picturing the vacant space in St. Louis Park – no tiny museum, no abbey register, no singles wall to replenish time and time again.

So here I am to say, I am so sorry for your loss. For our loss. There was no big scandal, no lawsuit, no culmination of some nefarious activity, just the demise of a place so many of us have come to know and love.  Who knew that the loss of a store could cause tears to fall? That in itself is testament alone.

Staff Photo

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