Jennifer Brooks
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For 135 years, the beer was weak, but the welcome was warm at Minneapolis 3.2 bars.

There used to be hundreds of these neighborhood bars, selling watery beer and pickled eggs. For decades, the city restricted any booze with a kick to the downtown bars police could patrol on foot.

There used to be hundreds. But time passed, laws shifted, and Minneapolis became a city of brewpubs and craft cocktail lounges and neighborhood bars with Summit or Lift Bridge or Forager on tap. Hundreds became dozens, dozens became a few.

And then there was one.

The T-Shoppe, the last 3.2 bar in the last state in the nation that still limits some businesses to selling only 3.2 beer.

“I came in to buy a pack of cigarettes,” said Kurt Modeen, waving to the spot where the cigarette machine used to be in the dim, dark-paneled interior of the North Side bar. “People looked like they were having fun, so I ordered a beer. That was 1987. I’ve been coming in ever since. I’ve been here forever.”

The frosted tankard by his elbow holds 25 ounces of beer — you’ll find Bud, Bud Light, Michelob and Schells on tap at the T-Shoppe. Unlike Minnesota consumers who have complained bitterly for years that the 3.2 beer found in Minnesota supermarkets and gas stations is basically beer-flavored water, customers here say they can’t really tell the difference, aside from the fact that a mug of this stuff will only cost you $3.25 at happy hour.

This is the sort of bar that lets its regulars run a tab. Owners Joe and Marion Abell keep a running tally on slips in a battered metal box. It’s the sort of bar where people gather for card games and karaoke and weekend potlucks where everyone brings a dish.

Behind the bar, Marilyn Roy has been tending bar here for 30 years. Mama T, the regulars call her, and at a word from her, rowdy patrons meekly shuffle home.

“What Mama says,” the regulars tell you, “goes.”

When a longtime patron died a few years ago, they brought his ashes back to the T-Shoppe. Chucky’s urn now watches down from the back of the bar. As eternal resting places go, you could do a lot worse than the T-Shoppe.

“A lot of the people who come here don’t have family,” Marion Abell said. “Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, we bring them turkey and everything. We’re open every holiday, so people have someplace to come.”

Trophies from long-ago softball and dart tournaments line the wall. The ceiling is tiled with hand-painted NFL team logos. When the Vikings came crashing down one year, leaving behind a single horn still clinging to the purple ceiling, one of the regulars, Pao Vue, milled a gleaming new one out of sheet metal. He smiled up at it from his bar stool.

“After coming here for a while,” he said, “it’s become a home.”

The Abell bought the T-Shoppe in 2001. No one is quite sure how many owners it had before that, or how long it’s been there on N. Fremont Avenue, or even how it got its name.

Some say it’s a holdover from Prohibition, when customers camouflaged their bootleg booze in tea cups. Other say the bar once had an owner from Czechoslovakia and “T-Shoppe” was as close as anyone could get to pronouncing his name.

Last year, City Pages named the T-Shoppe the best dive bar in the Twin Cities. City Pages was not wrong.

“There are certain characteristics that make up a good dive bar,” said Bill Lindeke, an urban geographer and history buff whose research on the topic brought him to the T-Shoppe a few years ago.

A good dive bar, he said, is small, dim and dingy. Not too many windows. Not too many employees. No fancy food on the menu. Frozen pizza, maybe. Or pickled eggs.

“Usually, the heads will all turn and look at you when you walk in. People will give you the once-over,” Lindeke said. “Cleanliness is sort of optional, obviously.”

His new book, “Closing Time: Saloons, Taverns, Dives, and Watering Holes of the Twin Cities,” co-written with artist and author Andy Sturdevant, celebrates a storied history of seedy drinkeries — starting with a bootlegger called Pig’s Eye, building his still in a cave in the future city of St. Paul.

The best dive bars had what the T-Shoppe has: A bond with the neighborhood stronger than the beer.

“It’s about the community,” Lindeke said. “A place where you can feel comfortable.”

State lawmakers are pushing to end Minnesota’s 3.2 beer mandate after Utah — Utah! — scrapped its 3.2 law. But the Abells like their bar as is. Lower-alcohol beer means less city regulation and a lower-key clientele.

“If we had hard liquor here, it would attract a different crowd,” Joe Abell said. “Hard liquor’s hard to control. Beer’s easy.”

Time passes, liquor laws change, but the neighbors hope the T-Shoppe never will.

“It’s 3.2 beer,” joked Carlos Benavidez, “but it works.”

Besides, he added, “Where else are you going to find a place like this?”

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com • 612-673-4008 Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks