Is It Time to Pour One Out for the Packie?

Cumberland Farms' proposal to expand the number of places in the state where beer and wine can be sold might sound pretty sweet to consumers—but to local package store owners, it spells disaster.

Photo by Alyssa Vaughn

Here in Boston, a city infamous for its unique cultural identity, it’s no surprise we feel a sense of loyalty to the neighborhood spot that supplies us with our scratch-offs, cigarettes, and handles of vodka. The locals-only, family-owned package store is a time-honored institution, so ingrained in the fabric of the city that it holds a place in our local lexicon (“My dad used to go every day to the package store, get some coffee brandy, a six pack of Schlitz, and then some Certs,” said noted purveyor of Bostonian mores Mark Wahlberg, in his Vanity FairBoston Slang” video). While we might be willing to shop for groceries among the gleaming, impersonal aisles of the nearest Whole Foods, when it comes to hooch, traditionally, Bostonians stick to the packie on the corner.

Much of this helps explain why some feathers got ruffled at a hearing last week over Cumberland Farms’ recent efforts to increase the number of liquor licenses in the state available to other types of businesses. The convenience-store chain has filed a 2020 ballot question that would authorize the creation of a new kind of license that allows food stores to sell wine and beer for consumption off-premises. Importantly, the measure would also progressively increase, and then eliminate, restrictions on the number of licenses that any one retailer can own or control. That all sounds well and good in a vacuum, but what would it mean for our beloved packies, whose independent ownership has long given them an advantage thanks to this very limit?

Currently, larger retailers can only own up to nine licenses to sell alcohol for off-premises consumption, which forces them to pick and choose among their branches. It’s why the Star Market by your apartment sells wine and beer, but the one by your office does not.

Independent liquor retailers, as you might imagine, are not exactly in love with the idea of more liquor licenses floating around: Last fall, the Massachusetts Package Stores Association filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Judicial Court in an attempt to get the petition deemed unconstitutional. And they’re not messing around—their legal team, per the Boston Globe, includes Bob Cordy, who is himself a former SJC judge. It’s an all-out war: Packies vs. Cumby’s.

The Cumby’s side of the argument is easy to understand: being able to buy more booze at more places and at better prices sounds like a pretty big win. “These laws have been around for decades, and the reality back then is not the reality today,” says Matt Durand, Cumberland’s Manager of Government Affairs & Public Policy. “Our customers expect more.”

Under the measure Cumberland Farms is pursuing, Durand says, independently operated liquor stores could happily co-exist with liquor-licensed grocery and convenience stores. The idea is that you’d stop by a convenience store or a grocery store for the bottle of wine or six-pack you forgot to pick up for dinner, but you’d head to the liquor store for your top-shelf bourbon and flavored vodka. “This is not Armageddon in the way that [package store owners] would have you believe,” Durand says.

But package store owners aren’t merely arguing that this new law would wreak havoc on their bottom-lines. If you ask them about the ballot initiative, you’ll hear a lot about the importance of small, independently owned businesses in today’s increasingly disconnected world. “We’re active in the community,” says Ben Weiner, the owner of Somerville’s Sav-Mor Liquors and a past president of the Package Stores Association. “We live there. We have employees that live there.”

Customer connection aside, though, the Package Store Association is arguing that more liquor licenses and thus greater access to alcohol in the city could lead to an increase in violence, drunk driving, and alcoholism. And the Association is not alone. Dr. Timothy Naimi, a physician and alcohol epidemiologist at Boston Medical Center, calls the ballot measure proposal a “massive public health concern.”

By increasing the number of outlets that can sell liquor, and in turn, driving down liquor prices through increased competition, he says, alcohol will become more ubiquitous—and dangerous. Naimi’s own research has found that limiting the number of places that sell alcohol is one of the most effective strategies for mitigating excessive drinking and other related ills. A study conducted in Baltimore, for instance, found that each additional outlet selling alcohol to be consumed off-premises was associated with a 4.8 percent increase in violent crime in that neighborhood. “Selling alcohol…is not like selling fidget spinners or coffee filters or laundry detergent,” Naimi says. “It is a special right and a special privilege in most states, and I think it should remain that way.”

Independent liquor–store workers, who often undergo rigorous training to be able to sell alcohol, think so, too. “Alcohol should be a tightly restricted beverage,” says Joe Malone, a Sav-Mor employee who’s worked at the store for 37 years. “We really card everyone who comes in here, and everyone in the party has to have a legitimate ID, or we send them out the door.” Naimi acknowledges that package stores, on the whole, do a very good job of not selling to minors or intoxicated people.

Maybe this checks out to you. Or maybe you think this all sounds like some straight-out-of-1919-Prohibition-poster hysteria, and you’d like to be able to just pick up your frozen pizza and beer in a single stop already. Either way, though, there’s something culturally significant that we’d lose if our independent liquor stores shutter. In a city where we’re rapidly losing our decades-old stationery stores, dive bars, news kiosks, and independent music clubs to high rents and flashy chains, the beloved packie is one of the final hallmarks of an era when Boston had a little more grit and soul. It would be a shame to see them go, too.