April 11 2010: At 36 meters, the Gaborone Hotel bar counter is the longest and one of the busiest in Botswana. This is hardly surprising for an establishment that caters for thousands who pass through the country’s biggest and busiest bus terminus.
A bar counter is nothing you think about until you imagine how would a bar look like without one, not too nice. Imagine knots of unruly customers mobbing the serving point clamoring for attention, a lot like the weekday morning scenes around serobe vendors at the Government Enclave.
That was probably how a bar scene looked like, until a Victorian engineer called Isambard Kingdom Brunel invented the current method of serving from a bar counter. Kingdom, who in 2002 was voted the second most popular Briton (after Winston Churchill) in a BBC public poll of ‘100 Greatest Britons’, was chief engineer in the Great Western Railway project. He noticed that service at the refreshment rooms at Swindon railway station was painfully slow. When trains changed locomotives and a sudden rush of customers converged upon the bar to knock back a few, the bar staff would be overwhelmed. Brunel’s solution was to invent today’s method of serving drinks from a bar counter. The new method was not only a faster means of serving drinks but also ensured the security of drinks, drink ingredients and glassware as well as the safety of bar staff.
The counter is the most important piece of furniture in a bar. In urban places like Gaborone and Francistown, the counter’s design has stylistically evolved such that it has become part of the decor and the principal attraction of a bar. Decades ago, a counter was little more than plain timber mounted atop brick-and-mortar. However, pub owners saw the need to make bars look aesthetically appealing and counters are now made of veneered pressed boards, melamine and formica, glass and mirror as well as granite and marble tops. More often than not, the counter is the centre piece of every refurbishment job.
Because familiarity breeds contempt, it may not be a good idea to build a concrete counter as that tends to limit interior design options. Regular customers are always thrilled by seeing changes when they visit their favourite hangout. One of the ways to bring about that thrill is by constantly moving the counter around. Satchmos nightclub in Gaborone West, whose owner can hold his own in design, has done so at least thrice since the club opened six years ago.
If you take any interest in theories of Austrian psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, the bar counter is a good place to observe different types of spending behavior because it is where most customers tend to sit, or stand. Freud suggested that the sort of toilet training that one gets in childhood influences how they will spend money in adulthood. If one rushes to the toilet at the slightest hint of their bladder or bowels filling up, that person will become a spendthrift. That would be the CEDA loan beneficiary who orders a double Johnnie Walker Blue shot and tells the barman: “Give everybody a beer; when I drink, everybody drinks.” However, if the infant takes long to answer the call of nature, Freud said that s/he will grow up to become a miser ÔÇô in the bar context, that would be a deep-pocketed career lager beggar.