Not quite the DMV

January 9, 2011

I’ve seen a couple of mentions lately about Pennsylvania’s state-owned-and-operated liquor stores. "Like prisoners in a gulag," is how a NYT article describes liquor shoppers in Pennsylvania.

I can believe the gulag part, even though I’ve never been in a Pennsylvania liquor store. I thought that kind of store had disappeared years ago but I guess I’m not too surprised Pennsylvania still has them. My impression is that alcohol control laws in the northeastern US are a little weird. A lot of different laws, a lot of different taxes, and a lot of states in a small area passing all those laws and taxes.

I recall a visit to my wife’s cousins in Massachusetts once. One of our outings was a not-too-long drive to Connecticut to buy beer and wine. I think that trip was due to lower taxes. I remember that the Connecticut stores were conveniently located just barely over the state line. I could’ve thrown a rock back into Massachusetts.

The Pennsylvania stories reminded me of my year-long stint in Iowa in 1974 & 1975. I worked CATV construction then and I’d gone to Des Moines to work on the system being built there. At that time in Iowa, you could buy beer (and maybe wine) at any gas station or grocery. But if you wanted liquor, you could only buy that at state-operated liquor stores.

I visited an Iowa State liquor store once to buy a fifth of whiskey as a gift for a friend’s father. This would have been in December, 1974 and it was sort of like a trip to the DMV.

As I recall, the store’s very plain entry admitted you to an anteroom. A counter stretching across the width of the store separated this anteroom from the shelves of liquor in the rear. And here’s how you bought your bottle of hooch.

You went to the right side of the counter and told state employee #1 what you wanted; he marked items on a check list. Then he passed that list along to state employee #2, who fetched your order from the shelves in back. (There was more than one person filling this role, IIRC.) #2 gave it to state employee #3, who packaged it for you. Finally the package was handed to state employee #4, at the left side of the counter, and he took your payment and rang the sale on the register.

Only after the sale was concluded did you actually get to touch or look at what you’d bought. If you didn’t know exactly what you wanted when you walked in, I suppose you were out of luck.

There were four people doing what one person would do in any sensible, privately operated store. They were all middle-aged, or older, men and naturally none of them was in any particular hurry. It all paid the same, eh?

And of course, it had the same take-a-number system that many DMVs and post offices use to insure first-come, first-served customer handling.

It was one of the oddest things I’d seen in my young life and I remember thinking, ‘What is this? The Iowa Full Employment Center?’ Since I couldn’t imagine what business the State of Iowa had running retail stores, what I took away was another lesson in limited government.

Even though Iowa doesn’t run state-operated stores any longer, it’s still one of the 19 states which hold monopolies on liquor sales.

Luckily, I’m in the next state south and its alcohol control laws are very liberal.


  1. That is EXACTLY what a Pennsylvania State Store (as the liquor and wine stores were called) was like in the same period. I went along with my late father as he bought a bottle of whiskey or vermouth a couple of times, and it always made me think of Stalin’s Soviet shopping experiences.

    Present day stores are now self service and far better stocked, and there exist some specialty stores where there are actually friendly and informed employees who can advise on wine selections. But the checkout lines usually include some shuffling of feet and resentment that the customers are preventing the employees from enjoying a nice work break.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Dan.

  3. […] is a bit of follow-up to my Not quite the DMV post about visiting a state-run liquor store in Iowa back in the […]

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