Most liquor stores in Minneapolis close at 9 p.m., but Chicago-Lake Liquors, which calls itself Minnesota’s largest-volume liquor retailer, is open until 10. This means that between 9 and 10 o’clock on any given night, Chi-Lake Liquors has an atmosphere not dissimilar to that of a Hayward fireworks depot at 5 p.m. on the Fourth of July. For the most part, Chi-Lake patrons between 9 and 10 p.m. don’t look particularly proud or excited to be getting their drink on; they look determined, or weary. Kids are left waiting in cars, and $0.99 mini-bottles of Bacardi Gold are popular impulse buys at the register.
Consistent with the neighborhood demographic, many patrons at Chi-Lake are black or Hispanic, and most don’t seem particularly well-to-do…but it’s a mixed crowd, especially earlier in the evening. Hipsters are increasingly creeping into the neighborhood from Uptown to the west and Longfellow to the east, and accordingly there’s a good selection of microbrews; you can’t beat Chi-Lake’s regular price of $10.99 a case for Sierra Nevada.
The Chi-Lake proprietors were surely unsurprised to find themselves the subject of controversy when they launched an advertising campaign mocking white professionals who hit the store for a fix of urban cred. National blog Racialicious republished a thoughtful essay criticizing the ads for exclusively identifying whiteness with middle-class cluelessness and blackness with jiveosity. “I have no doubt some hipsters in a Twin Cities ad agency are sitting around right now, fist bumping and congratulating themselves on a job well done. ‘We rock, yo!'” (I don’t know about the fist bumping, but the agency is indeed based in Minneapolis: Brew Creative.) Craig Brimm at the blog Kiss My Black Ads called the campaign “the minstrelization of caricatures that wrongly represent African Americans,” provoking dozens of comments—most in agreement with him.
So should I boycott Chi-Lake Liquors? I don’t think so. Pudgy white guys talking like gangstas is a pretty hoary joke, true—but I think the context here is interesting. The store is presumably advertising to guys a lot like the middle-class white dudes depicted in the ads, and the ads implicitly acknowledge the fact that for that crowd, a stop at Chi-Lake—versus, say, a stop at MGM Liquors on the other side of Lake Calhoun or a stop at Lowry Hill Liquors at Hennepin and Franklin—is probably going to mean standing in line with people who don’t look or talk like they do. On the one hand, the ads allow them to feel smug about the fact that they’re much smoother and more comfortable with their middle-class whiteness than the guys in the ads; on the other, the ads make them feel like it’s okay to shop at Chi-Lake. The proprietors know it’s a little awkward for them, but that it’s okay—they’re welcome anyway. The store’s Web site, obviously aimed at the iPhone demographic, underlines this message: “You’ll find us conveniently located at the edge of your comfort zone.”
Chi-Lake now has a Facebook page and t-shirts bearing the slogan i survived chicago-lake liquors. (With fantastic enterprise, they’ve created Facebook profiles for several clueless fictional white people who post comments like, “Oh, fo’ sho!”) The slogan is obviously an absurd message for most of the 9-to-10 crowd, many of whom probably view Chi-Lake as an oasis of calm and sanity. It’s a message clearly aimed at people like me, who can use the page and shirts to simultaneously say (1) I’m cool enough to hang out with the hard-core crowd at Chi-Lake, unlike you fancy boys who stock up at Surdyk’s; and (2) I appreciate the irony of being proud of myself for hanging out with the hard-core crowd at Chi-Lake.
When I saw the shirts for sale the other day, I laughed out loud and bought one. The cashier had to go off and dig one out of the back room, and the groaning guys in the lengthening line behind me did not seem to have much patience for my need to express my semi-ironic Chi-Lake pride. Which, of course, is exactly the point.