After the fern bar craze had swept the U.S., the Coal Bin arrived in the growing, but still-conservative Canadian city.
There was no place quite like the Coal Bin for Toronto’s young singles in the early ‘70s.
Located in the heart of the city’s booming downtown, surrounded by gleaming new office towers, the crowded 300-seat basement room was one of the first bars in Toronto specifically targeted at swinging singles.
It was a place where unattached young men and women could dance, drink cheap beer, and maybe, just maybe, hit it off. “If I had a dollar for every romance that started here, I’d be rich,” the owner of the bar, Roel Bramer, told the Toronto Star in August 1970. “This place really attracts the girls—nice girls. We get some real groovy looking chicks. Any bachelor who’s a bit of a swinger can meet a girl here,” he said.
Just a few years earlier a bar like the Coal Bin couldn’t have existed in Toronto.
Perfume salesman Alan Stillman is widely credited with opening the first drinking establishment for singles on New York City’s Upper East Side in 1965. His bar, T.G.I. Friday’s (yes, that T.G.I. Friday’s), tapped into a rich cluster of eligible young women (particularly airline stewardesses) living between 30th and 90th Streets. According to the New Yorker, one residential building located opposite the first Friday’s was so densely packed with stewardesses it was known as the “Stew Zoo.”
The first Friday’s was fresh, clean, and decorated with homely ornaments like Tiffany lamps and potted plants. Soon, single young women were lining up to get inside—and the single men inevitably followed. The success of the bar quickly inspired imitators and soon a new genre of drinking establishment—the fern bar—was spreading to cities across America.
Still, by 1968, the trend had yet to make jump over the border into conservative Ontario. The city’s “swinglers” (to use the nomenclature of the day) mostly went elsewhere to meet and mingle. “I do most of my swingling out of Toronto,” bachelor Jim Kirch, a sales manager, told the Toronto Star in 1968. “Nassau, New York, Montreal are my favorite spots.”
In 1960s Toronto, people usually struck up romances at private parties, in coffeehouses, or on trips organized by singles clubs. Social expectations meant men were often the ones required to initiate contact. Women openly courting men was generally frowned upon in wider society. It around this time Dutch-born economics graduate Roel Bramer and his business partner Rick McGraw founded the International Swingles Club, which organized parties for the city’s eligible men and women aged 21 to 35 in venues around the city. “It didn’t have a location,” says Bramer, who is now 79. “It just had a theme, it had a club membership, and every now and then we would throw a party somewhere.”
“We organized trips… it always sounds good to call something ‘international,’” he laughs. “We went to Puerto Rico and Aspen.”
Bramer came to Canada from Amsterdam in 1960 to study at McGill University in Montreal. Tuition in the U.S. was too expensive, he says, so he cut a deal with his parents to study north of the border. “I had a small apartment and my bedroom was immediately next door to a disco called La Rouge,” he says. “Their cash register was immediately on the other side of the wall of my bed. And I loved the sound. It kept me awake but I knew that I had to get some of that cash.”
Later, a job at DuPont brought him to Toronto, where he opened his first establishment, the Boiler Room, in 1967. He found the skills he picked up operating the swingles club transferred well into running brick-and-mortar locations. However, Ontario’s strict liquor laws initially stymied Bramer’s efforts to create a true party atmosphere. In 1968, the Liquor License Board of Ontario required pubs to be split into two rooms: one for men, and one for men accompanied by a female escort. Conservative limits on the number of people per square foot prevented the “squeezed-in friendliness” of bars in other cities, drinks had to be served alongside food, and service ended at 11:30 sharp.
Those and other restrictions gradually eased under Ontario Premier John Robarts: In 1969, bar service was extended to 1:00 a.m. and in 1970 the rules around men and women drinking together in pubs were removed. In 1971, the drinking age was reduced from 21 to 18.
Bramer opened the 300-seat Coal Bin in January 1970 in a basement next to the Boiler Room. It was directly across the street from TD Centre, the headquarters of TD Bank, and a short walk from the office towers of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, the Bank of Montreal, and the Bank of Nova Scotia. Playing on its low-ceilinged, downstairs location, the walls were painted charcoal grey and decorated with pickaxes, shovels, and large pictures of sooty miners. The waitresses walked around in hard hats serving 10-cent glasses of beer. Pitchers were a $1. It was an immediate success. “The Coal Bin… is where you’ll find the kid from the mailroom and that new file clerk from the sales office,” wrote Toronto Star nightlife reporter Charles Oberdorf. Every night of the week the dance floor was packed with swinging young men and women.
It was such a phenomenon that it generated full-page stories in the city’s newspapers and in 1971 the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation sent a TV reporter inside to explore. In the five-minute segment, the camera shows crowded tables strewn with beer glasses while the crowded dance floor twists to the sound of a rock band. “I think things are changing now,” 21-year-old Lorna McCaw told the CBC. “This is one of the first places in Toronto that I’ve ever come to that I find a girl can [meet men] and not feel ill at ease. It’s made for this purpose.”
Bramer’s Coal Bin was the one of the biggest, but there were others like it. There was Abbey Road on Queen Street, Malloney’s on Grenville Street, and Julie’s Bombay Bicycle Club in a converted mansion on Jarvis Street. ”Not long ago if a chick hitchhiked from here to Vancouver, the women on the block figured she was the next thing to a hooker,” said Gordon Wensley, the 29-year-old manager of Abbey Road. “But not any more. The whole attitude has changed. It’s the same with stag girls in bars.”
Despite its success, the Coal Bin and the Boiler Room were forced to close after only a few years to make way for the new headquarters of the Royal Bank of Canada. However, in its short life, the Coal Bin made a lasting impact on the city’s nightlife culture. “I don’t want to sound like Marx or Trotsky, but it was a mini revolution that most people in the world wouldn’t read or write about,” says Bramer.
Later, he parlayed the popularity of the Coal Bin into a new bar, the Gasworks, then the Generator, and in 1986 Bramwe co-founded the Amsterdam Brewing Company, one of Toronto’s first brewpubs, which remains in business under different ownership.
“[Bramer has] become the master purveyor of the Playboy dream to the office-clerk crowd,” wrote journalist Marci McDonald in the Star in July 1972. “[The] peddler of hipness and happiness for the price of a 70-cent mug of beer.”