Marion Abell pulled a small metal box out from under the well-seasoned T-Shoppe bar and reached inside to pull out slips of paper. "We have a tab for regulars. They pay every two weeks," Abell said. "Some people come back in a year and pay."

What makes this Camden neighborhood hangout distinctive isn't running tabs, but rather the kind of beer it serves: It's one of only two remaining 3.2 bars in Minneapolis.

Two decades ago, 64 city establishments had licenses that allowed them to sell only lower-alcohol beer. While a few of those bars have made the transition to stronger stuff, most have gone by the wayside. In their stead, there's been a proliferation of upscale craft-beer bars (Buster's, Pat's Tap, Pig & Fiddle) and restaurants (Piccolo, Corner Table and Al Vento).

Today's neighborhood bar is more likely to offer India Pale Ale, charcuterie and flatbreads than Hamm's, Stewart sandwiches and pickled eggs. It's also more likely to draw a younger, more affluent crowd from around the metro area.

Grant Wilson, the city's manager of licenses and consumer services, said the transformation has been a good thing for the city.

"People really like having neighborhood facilities like this," he said.

But the people who frequent the remaining 3.2 joints say they do so because of camaraderie, not the percentage of alcohol in the beer. And they prize the old-fashioned, small-town feel, which can get lost in gentrification.

"It all tastes like beer," said Dennis Carpenter, a regular at the Sunrise Inn in south Minneapolis. "I'm just glad I've still got this place."

Everybody knows your name

On a blustery, snow-spitting afternoon at the T-Shoppe, Carlos Benevedez was ready to light up the karaoke machine. "We turn this place into a cantina once in a while," he said before taking a swig from his 22-ounce mug.

Benevedez downplayed the quality of his voice, saying "RCA Records ain't gonna knock on my door in the morning." But fellow regular Dana Martin disagreed.

"He's pretty good," said Martin. "We know who can sing in here, and also who can't sing."

In fact, the people who frequent the bar know a lot about one another. Abell said about half of her customers arrive by foot. Once there, they tend to move from stool to table, chatting up their friends.

"This place is like a small 'Cheers,' " Benevedez said. "They say whatever happens at the T-Shoppe, the whole neighborhood knows."

Many areas still have that kind of neighborhood bar, with stronger beverages. But affluent people are moving back into the city, and commercial corners are becoming more upscale.

And 3.2 bars have been hurt by more than changes in taste.

Steve Houle, co-owner of the Sunrise Inn, said the 2005 smoking ban "knocked the heck out of us. The pool table went all weekend before that. I used to work more hours, make good tips," he said. "We're lucky to still be going."

At the T-Shoppe, owner Abell and her husband, Joe, put in a patio to woo smokers. Still, Abell estimates the smoking ban has cost them about 30 percent of their business.

Changes in zoning laws and parking restrictions also have contributed to the dwindling number of 3.2 joints, according to Wilson.

Here's a bit of history:

Back in 1884, city officials decreed that liquor and wine could be sold only at bars in two "liquor patrol areas," which police could cover on foot. Both areas hugged the Mississippi River: a swath of Minneapolis from 29th Avenue NE. to 5th Avenue SE. and a downtown strip from 21st Avenue N. to 19th Avenue S. In 1959 the downtown area was expanded to Franklin Avenue over to Lyndale Avenue.

That meant that bars in the city — but outside of the patrol areas —could serve only the low-alcohol beer. So 3.2 bars sprang up all over south Minneapolis.

It wasn't until 1974 that voters revoked the liquor patrol areas. Even then, change came slowly. Low-alcohol bars continued to dominate south Minneapolis until 1997, when voters approved a modification in the city charter allowing strong beer and wine to be sold in areas that don't have 7 acres of commercial zoning.

In 1997, there were 56 3.2 joints. By 2007, there were only 15.

Extinguishing business

Low-alcohol beer is an offshoot of Prohibition, which most states discarded by the 1940s. But 3.2 held on here. In fact, it was served in the Metrodome until 1993, said Chris Kohlmeier, general manager with concessionaire Centerplate.

Breweries, however, have continued making 3.2 largely because it's the only beer that can be sold in convenience stores in Minnesota. In four other states — Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Utah — 3.2 is sold in grocery and convenience stores.

Most of the popular beer brands check in around 5 percent alcohol. Craft beers often go much higher.

While those higher-alcohol craft beers are the beverage of choice at many of the hipster taprooms, some former 3.2 bars are happy to remain "the neighborhood dive bar."

That's the way manager Noel Casey describes the Cardinal Tavern.

The family-owned bar made the transition in 1992 and has maintained the same basic customer base. "We've seen three generations of families, which is kind of cool," Casey said. "You'd see a huge change if we went to hard alcohol."

The customers at the T-Shoppe aren't clamoring for anything stronger than their beloved 3.2.

"If [the beer] did not work, I would not be here," said Benevedez.

Standing nearby, Abell concurred. "People still get a buzz," she said, "and in 12 years [of ownership], we haven't had any major problems or vice. I'd rather stick with 3.2."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643