Charlotte Anderson, 22, chose an unlikely spot for her birthday party. Instead of going to a nightclub in Vancouver’s downtown entertainment district, her friends gathered at a private military club on the east side of the city.
The club is one of several veterans’ outfits in Vancouver that has opened its doors to a wider clientele. Veterans are growing older and membership is dropping. For most of its 62 years, only ex-service personnel and their guests were regulars at the Anavets Unit 298.
But membership restrictions have relaxed over the past decade to support the business.
Also known as the Taurus Club, the unit has struggled with a shrinking number of traditional members; the introduction of the H.S.T.; and tougher drinking and driving laws.
An alternative to Granville Street nightclubs, the Unit 298 clubhouse on Main Street is not for the pretentious-at-heart. There is no line-up. No bouncers. No cover charge. Take your hat off at the door and have a good time.
“It’s a good atmosphere,” said Anderson. “You can bring all your friends and you don’t have to wait in line.”
On this particular Friday night, Anderson and her friends crowded around the glossy-topped laminate tables. Jackets thrown over the backs of chairs, friends talked over bottles of Old Style Pilsner and pints of draft beer.
Outside the clubhouse a large blackboard leaned against the building: “Live music. Guest welcome.”
Two plaid-clad guys looked for somewhere to lock up their road bikes. A circle of older adults stood on the sidewalk, passing a joint around a circle.
The younger crowd was eager to indulge in all the games the clubhouse has to offer: shuffleboard, pool tables, snooker tables, a pinball machine, dartboards, Golden Tee.
While the clubhouse was packed, the veterans were nowhere in sight. Older veterans are few and far between, according to clubhouse manager Valerie Balez who has managed the club for 21 years.
“You won’t find them here on a weekend,” she said.
Balez estimates that 20 per cent of current members have a service background. The majority of current members are not veterans, falling between the 40-60 age category.
One such member is Randy Churchman. He been with the club for five years. He can be found sitting at the bar on a Friday night. Newspaper and pen in hand, working on a Sudoku puzzle. The perfect spot for people watching, he said.
“It’s like home,” he said.
Part of the older crowd, Churchman embraces the intergenerational mixing pot that exists at the club.
This past year has introduced new challenges to veterans’ clubs and the service industry at large.
“The H.S.T. was bad enough,” Balez said. Then came the new drinking and driving laws.
Balez estimates that sales fell by 25 per cent since the new drinking and driving laws took effect.
While the bar has no control over taxes and lawmakers, it has tried to reinvent itself.
The introduction of karaoke on Wednesdays and Saturdays was the first successful magnet for attracting younger members. It started eight years ago and is still going strong.
A lot of the younger people started to buy memberships when they became karaoke regulars, according the Balez.
“Our goal is to keep them as members,” Balez said.
While buying a membership is not mandatory, the club encourages patrons to sign up. Current membership fees are $29, set to increase slightly in 2011. Balez holds a membership drive annually to encourage people to sign up and to explain the benefits of being a member.
There are currently three Anavets clubhouses in Vancouver.