Christmas Eve Liquor Store Fire
(This article is excerpted from and courtesy of the Arlington Fire Journal, the fire and rescue service history kept by firefighters in Arlington County. It was originally published on May 11, 2005 and updated in 2008. The entire article can be read at http://arlingtonfirejournal.blogspot.com)
In December 1935, controversy embroiled Arlington County. Prohibition had ended and the Commonwealth of Virginia decided to open an ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) store at 3131 Wilson Boulevard in Clarendon on a trial basis. (The Rien Tong Thai and Chinese Restaurant is at this address today)
After Prohibition ended, Virginia authorized retail stores to sell beer and wine, but retained direct control over the sale of hard liquor. The General Assembly set up what is today the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and gave it the exclusive right to sell hard liquor directly to the public. Until restaurants were authorized in 1968 to sell liquor by the drink (one glass at a time), the only legal hard liquor sales in Virginia were bottles handed by ABC clerks to customers standing on the other side of counters in state-owned stores. For most of the 20th Century, ABC stores were drab facilities that required customers to order liquor from clerks at a counter, rather than self-service stores with customer-friendly lighting and displays. (Image, conventional ABC store in the 1950s, courtesy of Alcoholic Beverage Control Board image bank)
Many people–particularly those who supported prohibition–were against the state’s decision, and yet the store opened on Christmas Eve and stayed open until 11 p.m. that night. Business was brisk. County police officers and Sheriff Howard Fields were on hand as a precaution, and yet there were no reports of protest or disorderly conduct.
However, at about 3 a.m. on Dec. 26th, the day after Christmas, flames were discovered behind the store by a passerby who sounded the alarm.
Members of the Clarendon and Ballston volunteer fire departments – no doubt enthusiastic customers of the new enterprise – responded and waged a valiant battle to save the building and its contents – more than 2,000 cases of liquor.
The blaze apparently started in boxes and rubbish piled outside the rear of the ABC store. Damage was limited to the exterior. “The blaze was put out after a window frame had been burned and telephone and light wire felled by the flames,’’ according to The Sun newspaper, though no cause was listed.