WILMONT -- When a couple of "For Sale" signs go up in the windows of Main Street businesses in a town the size of Wilmont, it's enough to cause concern throughout the community -- especially when the two businesses are the bar and the café, local gathering places for noon meals and draft beers.
Wilmont Liquor has seen a steady decline in patrons for the last several years, according to manager Barb Hebig. Since it's a municipal liquor store, the city council keeps tabs on the bottom line, and whenever there's a recorded loss in two out of three years, the city is required to host a public hearing.
In October, city leaders hosted the second such public hearing in six years. This time, public sentiment was that the local bar and off-sale liquor store be put up for sale. A buyer hasn't stepped forward yet, however, and the city can't wait any longer. Wilmont Liquor will close its doors for good on New Year's Eve. They will be offering drink specials throughout the evening.
"It's just the way municipal liquor stores are going," said Hebig of the closure, pointing out that Lismore, in recent years, sold its municipal liquor store to a private party.
"They do pretty well when they go private," Hebig said. "I hope somebody buys it -- we need it in town."
Wilmont Liquor has been Hebig's employer for nearly 30 years, but it's also been the gathering place for people not only from Wilmont but from surrounding small towns and farms.
"It's like the meeting place for everybody," she said. "People can come in here and feel comfortable. You come in here and you know everybody. It's kind of like that song on Cheers -- everybody knows your name."
Wilmont Liquor opened at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Fifth Street in the early 1950s, said Hebig. Back then, the place was busy six nights a week.
"Everybody in my age group -- in their 50s, it was just a given --would come up town every Wednesday, and then every Friday and Saturday," she said. "Now, that same age group, you might see them once every couple of months."
Hebig said it isn't just the economy that's played a role in the decline of liquor store customers over the years. When the legal limit of alcohol dropped from .10 to .08 for DWI enforcement, it resulted in a lot of people picking up their liquor and taking it home, rather than sitting at the bar. That had an impact on sales, but so too, did the simple fact that there aren't as many residents in small towns like Wilmont anymore.
"When I first started working here, every family had a big family," Hebig said. "There's also not as much going on in town.
"It wasn't that many years ago that there was bowling every night of the week at the café," she added, saying the bowlers would stop by the bar afterwards.
The Wilmont Liquor store was also at a disadvantage compared to other bars because it only has a fryer, not a full kitchen. They can make chicken strips and French fries -- typical bar fare, but not much else.
"Now it seems people need a draw -- something special -- to go someplace," Hebig said. "We can't offer a steak or a salad. It seems like people stop in here and then they go someplace to have dinner out."
Since October, the hours at Wilmont Liquor have been cut from their typical 11 a.m. to close schedule to the current 4 p.m. to close schedule Monday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to close on Friday and Saturday. Hebig has been the only full-time employee for the last year, with another four or five part-timers helping out.
"I don't think its hit me yet that we're going to close," said Hebig, who worked her way up from waitress to assistant manager and finally manager. In 1996, she was honored as Minnesota's Bartender of the Year.
"Most of the customers ended up being my friend," she added. "Everybody is sad. They're sad and they're hoping a private person buys it soon so they still have their bar to come back to."
Hebig said there have been six to eight couples who have made a Friday night tradition of visiting Wilmont Liquor and sharing in conversation in the corner booth. They, too, are wondering where they'll go.
"I joked that maybe they could come to my house," Hebig said with a laugh.
While she ponders her own future -- finding a new job after the holidays that will allow her weekends off and more time to see her grandkids -- Hebig hopes the liquor store will one day soon reopen.
"I think (the city) is just optimistic that it would be sold," she said.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.