Why Pennsylvania Has State Stores

When I first moved from New Orleans to Philadelphia, I was more than a little stymied by the liquor laws. Coming from the South, I thought I understood bizarre alcohol regulation; for example, one Sunday I stopped a convenience store in Mississippi that stocked some intriguing hard liquor items, like Jack and Coke in a can (already mixed–convenient!), but when my companions and I tried to buy them for our tubing expedition, we found that only beer was purchasable on the holy day. But Pennsylvania was next-level weird: the liquor stores were all owned and operated by the state, so when I purchased something for one of the numerous BYOB restaurants in the city, the charge appeared under “Government Services” on my credit card statement. Alcohol was pricier than I expected in bars as well as the stores, and beer–the staple of my people–could only be purchased in bulk at special distributors unless you lived near a high-end convenience store that sold pricey six-packs. The effects were visible beyond the bar: I was accustomed to wandering into live music shows for no or minimal cover, just buying a drink or two at each location to contribute to bar and band; in Philadelphia, live music ticketing started at a much higher rate than I was used to, and entertainment venues may or may not offer booze. My wallet was devastated by the difference, so I got Netflix and started staying home more.

In this period of culture shock, if I’d heard that PA government representatives were moving to privatize liquor stores (as they did last week), I would have assumed that this was a victory for the people. And if Senate continues the bill’s progress, it may yet turn out to be so. I do now have a better understanding of why state stores exist in the first place, so I will be very interested to see how their benefits and drawbacks are addressed as the legislation moves along.

To start with, the state-controlled liquor stores aren’t precisely a relic of teetotaling fundamentalists or government greediness, as I’d imagined in my early days as a Pennsylvanian. Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and similar agencies in a handful of other states were developed to meet two needs: one, to ease the state out of Prohibition (which was repealed just four days after the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Act was signed in 1933). The other was to generate jobs and revenue in the state during the Great Depression. So, liquor control actions sort of fall under the umbrella of New Deal programs, and were one of the first measures taken during Roosevelt’s presidency to stabilize a wrecked economy. Because both profits and taxes went toward the Commonwealth, Pennsylvania earned a great deal of revenue from liquor control in its early years. The new stores also made jobs available.


[This “merit system” mentioned in the caption was required by all New Deal programs–basically it meant that people from different neighborhoods, income levels, and ethnicities could apply and be considered. This did not include women–not for another ten years–and it probably did not give a fair shake to men of color, but the federal merit systems did level the playing field for Jewish and Italian American applicants, for example.]

Interestingly, most arguments against privatizing the liquor stores lean on those same New Deal benefits–the state still earns revenue from its liquor stores and they do make cashier jobs available at a regulated rate higher than minimum wage. Those benefits don’t necessarily go away if liquor stores are privatized–the state will earn money from the sale of the stores and will still collect sales tax, and of course if new stores start popping up, then that will mean more jobs, though possibly not at the same wages. But those factors are difficult to predict.

Predictability is basically the strongest factor in favor of PCLB as it stands. The stores are pricey, which drives many people across the borders to buy wine and liquor in nearby states, but the prices remain the same in different stores. If a state store doesn’t have the particular wine or uncommon spirit you’re looking for, they can actually look the item up in their system and tell you which location carries it, or have it delivered to the closest store to you. If you want an item that can legally be sold in the States but does not exist in PLCB’s system, they are legally obliged to order it for you. Those are perks I think not everyone takes advantage of, and that probably don’t weigh as much in the debate as convenience, better pricing, and better hours do. But again, those benefits are not guaranteed by privatization; they just become possibilities.


The bill passed by PA House Representatives has been several years in development, and it is only one of many that have gone up for debate in the last forty years. But I look forward to seeing how this one progresses, and hope it turns out for the best. Alcohol is deeply entwined in the social fabric of our city–any city, really–and reconfiguring the liquor laws will have effects on the restaurant culture that Philly so lovingly cultivates, arts and music events, and more.

2 responses to “Why Pennsylvania Has State Stores

  1. Alcohol laws in general are so bizarre and every state I’ve lived in has had some strange quirk to it–here in MD, for example, everything is based at the county level so while one county owns the spirits stores others have no such practices. Connecticut was the last state in New England to allow Sunday sales, while in New York I have no idea how certain stores were able to get away with the sales and discounts they did. Probably the strangest of all of them, though, is that in PA restaurants have to buy alcohol from the state stores and I believe pay retail price (hence the high proliferation of BYOBs); a friend of mine did beverage management at several places in the city and we’d sometimes join him at the end of his shift when he would go to the local state store to place an order. It’s so weird. If this means better selection and prices whenever I come back to visit, though, this is all great news.

  2. Pingback: Scenes of Eating is four years old! | Scenes of Eating·

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