Kick the state out of our bars

by Brian Clarey

North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue is contemplating the possibility of privatizing the booze business in our state, something I’ve been complaining about since pretty much the day I moved here.

Bars closing at 2 a.m.? Preposterous, I thought. ABC stores?

Ridiculous. You couldn’t even get high-octane beer here when I came on the scene in 2000 — granted, I came from New Orleans, so my perceptions were a bit skewed.

But the bar business is something with which I am intimately familiar.

I started working in bars at 19. Cooter Brown’s, if you must know, near the Uptown bend in the Mississippi River, as a doorman. I was 21 when I first got behind the bar at Rosy’s Big Easy on Tchoupitoulas Street; the job enabled me to pay for much of my college education and meet lots of girls.

Before I left the city, I worked in no less than seven bars over 11 years. I counted and measured bottles, cut checks to distributors, sampled new products and developed drinks for them, tallied out registers… all the mundane nuts and bolts of the bar business — any business, really. Supply and demand. Cash flow. Negotiation. It’s about as American as it gets.

But the fact remains that if you are a bar owner in North Carolina, you are not participating in free-market capitalism.

The state maintains a chokehold on business of booze in these parts.

It dictates the hours of business, the price and availability of inventory, the particulars of discounts, the possibility of credit for product. By enforcing an archaic “private club” law, the state considerably narrows the pool of perspective customers, tacitly discouraging bars without kitchens and, due to “membership” rules, virtually obliterating tourist trade. An enforcement arm — the ABC Board — oversees the state-run monopoly with draconian efficiency.

You can buy a pack of smokes at any gas station, convenience store, drug store or supermarket, but to get a pint of blackberry brandy or a bottle of single-malt scotch you have no alternative but to do business with the state.

This is about more than the ridiculous contrivance and inconvenience of state-run ABC stores — which uphold, by the way, an unexplained cell-phone prohibition enforced by armed guards.

This is about bars.

Consider this: I can drive to my local ABC store and buy a bottle of scotch for less than a bar owner, who buys spirits by the case, pays for it.

Bars pay higher taxes than other businesses because, unlike hotel and restaurant owners, there is yet no statewide organization, no lobbying group, no mouthpiece. Bar owners in North Carolina have been getting the shaft for decades.

Perhaps Louisiana is not the most sterling example of the effects of lax liquor laws, but the bar owners who did not drink, shoot or snort their profits away seemed to do pretty well.

When I worked at Igor’s, beer companies would give us a free keg if we met a purchasing goal each month — a free keg to sell one glass or pitcher at a time, giving a serious boost to the bottom line. Ordering a case of vodka merited a free bottle of the same. Deliveries from distributors had bonus bottles and freebies tucked in the boxes: new product samples, window signs and other items deemed contraband by the Old North State.

Bars in Louisiana are also allotted video poker machines, which supplement their revenue mightily.

I’m not saying North Carolina should emulate the Bayou State, because it’s possible that the pendulum has swung too far down there. It’s true that you can still buy a drink through a drive-through window in parts of Louisiana and drink alcohol from an open container on the street. You can enter most bars at 18 years of age, many of which stay open 24 hours a day. And you can buy a bottle of liquor at pretty much any grocery store, gas station or drugstore. These are not always positive things.

But there exists a sensible middle ground between here and there. There are things that state governments inherently do well: monitor highways, maintain courts and ensure fair local trade among them. And then there are things from which state governments would do well to stay away. The liquor business — both retail and wholesale — is one of those things.

In privatizing the booze trade in North Carolina, the state extricates itself from a business it never should have been practicing in the first place. It grants upon bar owners some of the same rights as other business owners and introduces competition into the equation. And by selling the rights to the state’s liquor trade, it looks to make a tidy one-time payment that could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, which no matter how you slice it is one hell of a bar tab.