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The Case for Closing Liquor Stores

Violent crime has intractable causes like poverty, drugs and guns. But one cause -- the number of businesses selling booze in a neighborhood -- could be directly controlled. Should it be?

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It’s no surprise, however, that  poor neighborhoods are hit harder. The most dangerous type of liquor store is one that offers to cash a check for a fee and then sells the check casher, say, a pint of Thunderbird. Booze-selling convenience stores, which are open late and store cash, are themselves the target of a high rate of robberies. An organic wine store on an upscale street is less vulnerable.

But the easiest solution—convert privately owned and run stores to state control—is utterly impractical, and arguably unfair to the store owner. The alcohol industry has a great deal of influence over federal and state politicians. Most of the reforms, or efforts, take place at the county or city level and involve new zoning laws restricting the number of liquor stores. But new laws do not apply to established businesses.

Public health officials can often find legal grounds to reduce the concentration of liquor stores if they look hard enough. For example, in Baltimore, which has long had progressive activist leadership in its health department, officials  identified some 125 booze businesses that were operating in the middle of a residential block—a violation of zoning law. When a crackdown was announced—the shops were given two years to move or to stop selling booze—there was a massive outcry from the city’s large Korean-American community. It turns out that these folks owned 90% of the “unlicensed” stores. The reform has  stalled for the time being.

Despite the CompStat evidence, liquor and convenience stories are not viewed by most citizens as a pox on the health of society. True, they partake of the general stigma surrounding drinking and drunks, and they add nothing to the real estate value of the block. But they are open at times when other stores go dark—whether at night or in seriously bad weather. Retail stores stock not only beer and wine but also groceries. But while the stores may contribute to (not cause) violent crime, the employees who work there are themselves frequent victims.

When I was growing up, a liquor store was a hub for our entire family. Norman’s Wines & Liquors on Spring Street in Ossining, New York, was our home away from home. A friendly guy always behind the counter, Norman was my alcoholic father’s general-purpose local tradesman. He cashed checks, listened to troubles, baby-sat when my father had errands to do, dispensed cases of gin, vermouth and whiskey and was an all-around factotum of stability in a sea of instability. He told me that I was pretty, he called my mother elegant, and he provided my brother with empty wooden crates for the building of hot rods. Spring Street was Ossining’s second Main Street—a sketchy neighborhood near the famous Sing Sing prison.

Norman seemed like the quintessential small-town nice guy. Yet violent crime in innocent-seeming neighborhoods was one of the great themes in my father’s literary work. Now even friendly Norman seems to me a symbol of the way liquor and trouble go together—whether it’s in a computerized subway map, a local bar or a leafy suburban cul-de-sac.

Susan Cheever is a columnist for The Fix, and the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill, about AA's founder.
 
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