Steve and Shannon Martin purchased the 50-foot neon Stampede Corral sign after the bar closed for good in 2018. NICK STANLEY PHOTO

After The Barroom Dust Settles: Love In A Post-digital World

Steve and Shannon Martin first met at the sorely missed Stampede Corral bar in Kitchener over a decade ago. The two former Conestoga College students were married a little over a year later.

After seeing the 50-foot neon Stampede Corral sign for sale on Facebook, Shannon insisted on putting in an offer. Now the sign sits along their driveway, propped up so that those in the know can sneak a peek on their way through.

After purchasing the sign, they were contacted by a few local media outlets to share their story and connection to this piece of Kitchener history. Upon having their story publicized, they noticed a trend appear in its response.

“It was posted to Facebook [and] just from reading a lot of comments, it was unbelievable how many people were saying things like ‘I met my significant other there,’” Steve said.

I never set foot in Stampede Corral, but hearing that name jostles loose childhood memories of my own parents’ rose-pink reminiscing. Because at some point in the 90’s my mom and dad locked eyes for the first time in the same bar that brought Steve and Shannon together years later.

“It was definitely a meeting place more than it was a bar,” Steve said. “It was a different feel than a lot of bars and clubs at the time.”

My mom confirmed this when I pressed her on the topic. She said they didn’t even stay there to chat on that fateful night in the ’90s. She and her friend left about five minutes after she connected with my dad and they eventually chatted at the night’s next stop.

When we talked on the phone, I made a joke to Steve about how his kids would be in my shoes one day – telling pals their parents met at Stampede Corral – but in our post-digital, post-pandemic world, has this type of nostalgia become the relic of a bygone era?

“Times are changing for sure,” Steve said. “There is already a trend for online dating [and] with places like that closing it definitely changes things.”

Unless we can learn to romanticize Bumble-fumbles and Tinder-flames, are things really as bleak as they feel? It’s easy to lose hope when past prospects like Stampede Corral, Chainsaw, and Harmony Lunch are all out of the picture.

“I don’t know so much that bars occupy the same social space that they did in previous generations,” dating coach and matchmaking specialist Anne Marshall pointed out.

“While those of us who are older definitely do lament the loss of treasured, local establishments – especially if they happened to also have been music venues – there are two things to say about that,” Marshall began. “One is that we’re getting old and this happens to everybody,” she laughed. “It’s weird that it’s happening because of the pandemic, though.”

Marshall continued on to point out the fact that younger generations, who tend to drink far less than those who have come before them, were already beginning to congregate in newer spaces, pre-Covid – think board game cafes and axe-throwing arenas.

“It’s weird when newer places are having to shut down because we won’t have the opportunity to see what some of these places could have become, they could have become great places to meet people,” Marshall said.

With noticeable excitement, Marshall began to describe several under-recognized ways to connect online that aren’t necessarily dating-specific.

“For example, if you look up a beloved former bar … I’m going to say Mars Bar [in East Village, NYC, where Marshall once lived],” she elaborated. 

“You could go on any number of social networks and search for a group with a name like ‘We love the Mars Bar’ or ‘Who remembers the Mars Bar?’ and find a ton of people there who remember that place and were possibly there in the same era as you.”

While the average person is quick to conflate online dating with the likes of eHarmony, Tinder, and Plenty of Fish, those who have found success will also point out the flaws in this assumption.

“In the absence of bars, the best place to meet people – outside of a strict dating app – is social media gathering around shared interests or shared memories,” Marshall posited. “That’s how you become friends with strangers on the internet.”

“The classic ‘sliding into the DM’s’ happens quite naturally when it’s not the purpose for you being there,” Marshall added, referring back to Steve, Shannon, my parents, and every other couple that connected at a place like Stampede Corral by chance.

“If the purpose for you going out to a bar was solely and only to meet someone, I guess you would lament that opportunity right now, but [these couples] probably met when both of them had something else in mind,” she added.

“They probably didn’t go there to meet the person they were going to marry; they went there because they liked the music that they played, or they wanted to ride the mechanical bull.”

As you will hear from many others, sparks are most likely to appear organically when you aren’t trying to force it. For Steve and Shannon and the many other couples like them, it was the setting – the shared enthusiasm for a place of gathering – that led to a fateful meeting.

“You kind of felt that it was a great atmosphere for like-minded people and anybody really, you didn’t have to like country music to have a good time there,” Steve said of Stampede Corral.

For Marshall, this type of sentiment speaks volumes, and one key aspect of romantic success post-2020 is being able to translate that mindset into the digital realm.

“You need to look for the internet equivalent of those things, you need to approach people in a way that you would in real life,” Marshall reiterated.

With respect to nostalgia, Marshall pointed out MSN Messenger as an internet relic that already bonds people via reminiscing. With more recent changes in the rear-view, romanticizing bygone eras of online interaction is evidently nothing short of a certainty.

Regardless, for anyone looking to make a connection, Marshall’s expert opinion is that the dating pool is deeper than ever, and with more people being eager to settle down than in years past, she finished off our chat with one final piece of advice:

“Tell all of your single friends that this is a really good time to put themselves online.”