Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I've been saying this for years...

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.


Rich said...

I'll be your first commenter, Lew. Good job on the article over at your other blog and the creation of this one. It is long over due.

I'd like to see some articles showing how despite all the taxation, if the industry were privatized it would bring more money into the state coffers than currently. The state wouldn't be outlaying cash for running the business and paying all those state store clerks 30k plus bennies to run a register and check ID's. Oh yeah, and that whole free enterprise thing too.

Unfortunately, change is a long way off, and we know that. Look at how long it is taking to get six pack sales in distributors. Maybe we should debate it a little longer.

Anonymous said...

Where do I volunteer for your army?
Having lived outside PA for over half my life, i am still frustrated how hard it is to buy any alcoholic beverage in this commonwealth.


Lew Bryson said...

Thank you, gentlemen. And Bob...you just volunteered. Keep commenting, and I'll make sure it gets in front of people.

Anonymous said...

Good on you, Lew. While the overall quality of the State Stores has improved the point remains that their very existence in a free-market economy is appalling.


Anonymous said...

There is one single reason why the PLCB operates wine/liquor stores - it is for tax reasons. And at some point in history, it did make sense to have the tight control of it. But in 2008, it comes down to $$$. Im not sure if this fact is still true but the WS Stores returns $200M in tax revenue to the State.

I laughed at the methadone clinic comment. I have shopped at liq stores from Maine down to Florida and PA has the worst shops I have seen. But I still do find some rare wines here and there in PA - and at lower prices then any other state.

And get this - I love wine and have lived in PA between 1996 and 2006. I got so of the PA wine stores and I set out to open my own wine shop in DE. I'll open in June or July (veritaswineshop.com). And this shop will be the anthesis of the "Wine & Spirits Shoppe".

Lew Bryson said...


I tell you, I could almost hate Jonathan Newman for making the State Stores good enough that people don't mind them as much. Luckily, it looks like the new folks in charge are intent on screwing that up. Whew!

Good luck with the store. Hope PA can give you some free market competition before you retire.

Anonymous said...

"Luckily, it looks like the new folks in charge are intent on screwing that up."

My point exactly! In the last eyar or so, there have been a number of personal favorites delisted by the nerds in charge of the PLCB. I sent them a note yesterday morning, just before you announced the existence of this blog, asking what criteria they use for removing an item from their list.

The choices have been dwindling for the last two years, and it's beginning to look like a rye/bourbon (my faves) honor roll:

Elijah Craig 750
Elmer T. Lee
Old Forester 1.75
Evan Williams 1783

And the most egregious missile hit of all, Old Overholt, delisted in its home state, three years before it's 200th birthday!

You're right, Mr. Newman's departure could be the best thing ever in terms of the potential dismantling of the system.

P.S. But don't forget the influence of whatever union represents the State Store employees and their job entitlements!!!

Lew Bryson said...

I won't forget the union influence, Sam. The hardest part about writing this, getting people to see the problems with the PLCB, is thinking about the effect it could have on people's livelihoods if I were somehow successful. Feels weird.

Dan Bengel said...

Bingo Mr. Lew, you said the magic words, union employees. If you put yourself in their shoes for a second or two you can see while this is such a tough battle. "Hey buddy we are going to take your job away with all the good perks. But don't worry, I'm sure someone will hire you once we go private. You mean at the same wage and perks too? Uh, maybe not the same." Now don't get wrong, I am with you, but this is the real reason why it has been so tough over the years to get this done. From Governors to state reps, all have tried to shut this down and failed. If that one thing I mention above can be solved, we may have a chance.

Boak said...

I had to look this up on Wikipedia as I couldn't believe such a thing existed.

How weird! Good luck in the fight.