I remember the first time I bought booze from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, the PLCB.
I went to the State Store on N. Queen Street in Lancaster. I was 21, and a junior at Franklin & Marshall College. The store was a counter fronted on a small area; standing only, no seats, no coatrack, nothing. It looked like a methadone clinic: come in, get your prescription, get out. I picked up the PLCB catalog and ran my finger down the list of vodkas. I went up to the counter and pointed to my selection, and said the number of the selection -- only the number, not the name, please -- to the clerk. He went into the shelves, and brought back my bottle of Smirnoff. He didn't ask for my ID, just my money. I paid him.
I remember the second time I bought booze. I got in a friend's car and we drove down Rt. 222 to Conowingo, Maryland, where we bought two cases of liquor. We went and got steamed crabs, then drove home by a different route, laughing all the way at the lower prices, huge selection, and friendly service we'd found. I had already decided that if this was how Pennsylvania was going to force me to buy booze, I'd break the law to avoid it.
After almost 30 years, I've thought of lots of reasons why the PLCB is a bad idea, why it should be abolished in the favor of privately-owned retail stores -- the way it is done in most states -- and why it seems impossible that this will ever happen. I'm starting this blog to present them, in hopes that it may, in some small way, help move Pennsylvania towards the day when we turn our backs on this relic of Repeal.
The State Stores have improved since I bought that bottle of Smirnoff -- they're called Wine & Spirits Stores now, they're open on Sundays, and they actually have aisles -- but they're still ridiculous. The system is ridiculous. The state has taken over an entire segment of retail -- wine and liquor sales -- and reserved it to themselves. "We will sell these products," they say, "and only us. We will control those sales, because only we have the power and responsibility to sell to the right people, and collect the taxes properly. If we did not control these sales, surely chaos and criminality would result."
Well, okay, I made that up. What they actually say is this:
Overview of the PLCB
This overview describes how the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) carries out its mission, presents a history of the PLCB, and provides information about each of the Board's major organizational entities. The overview also includes many facts and figures which demonstrate the major contribution that the PLCB makes to Pennsylvania's economy.
We are currently in the process of updating this document.
So...nothing. Let me take a whack at it. The PLCB exists because at the time of Repeal, Pennsylvania had a governor, Gifford Pinchot, who still ardently believed in Prohibition, and a legislature that believed Repeal may well be temporary and that Prohibition was still a strong political force -- to be fair, a belief that was prevalent in the day. Few people knew that Prohibition as a political force was deader than a doornail, in a state of complete collapse.
Working with what they knew, Pennsylvania's legislators put together a "control" system that was actually fairly common among states. They would control all sales of wine and liquor (note that beer was not included) through state-run stores. The clerks would simply deliver the bottle; they would not make recommendations of any one brand over another, a policy rooted in a brute force approach to fairness that would unfortunately lead to a total lack of any kind of service mentality. "We got it, you want it: play by our rules or get lost" was the attitude that ruled in the State Stores, and largely still does, despite the recent development of a human face.
The PLCB justifies itself by the revenues it brings in, by the supposition that it 'controls' abusive and underage drinking better than privately-owned businesses would, and by the money it "infuses" into the state economy by paying landlords for leases on the stores and the wages it pays its employees. It is a system that works so well that Pennsylvania is surrounded by great liquor stores across its borders.
I say we take it down.