From The Desk Of Adam Brodsky: A People’s History Of The PLCB


Doesn’t this look like an inviting place to shop?

I seldom find myself in agreement with Governor Corbett, but this week, he announced a plan to privatize liquor sales across the commonwealth and I almost did a spit-take. He of course cited the antiquated state store system and touted the fiscal benefit of a private system, promising that the extra revenues would be poured into PA schools and our precious little children would grow wise and prosperous on the pickling of their own parents.

Uncle Tom is not the first Governor to threaten to ditch the system. The fight has been waged, on and off, for more than 30 years beginning with Gov. Richard Thornburgh. Along with the omnipresent inertia of bureaucracy, the PLCB’s Rasputinesque longevity can be attributed mainly to two external factors: Pressure from the union representing employees of PA’s wine and liquor stores, and Pennsyltucky, where demon rum is about as popular as science or the Quran.

In 2009, PLCB Deputy Press Secretary Francesca Chapman said that 688 municipalities — that’s more than 25% of the state’s total — prohibit retail sales of wine, spirits and beer. Transitioning from dry to wet requires more than a zoning change. These towns would need a petition of signatures equaling at least 25 percent of the vote total of the highest local vote-getter in the previous general election; then, a binding referendum to allow alcohol sales would be placed on the ballot of the next election. So even the PLCB’s demise would not simply clear the way for convenience. Note that all of this can be negated by a sunny February day up at Gobbler’s Knob.

But it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. Municipalities can vote on a range of proposals, such as allowing all forms of alcohol sales or a limited amount, permitting sales only in private clubs or restaurants.

So even if the state stores are abolished, these dry municipalities would have to choose to allow liquor sales in their towns. But these are ultimately debates for another, happier day when the Wine and Spirits Shop a mere 1.4 miles from my house has a going out of business sale, and I stock up for the last time before I start buying boutique wines at Wawa.

What I want to tell you about is how we became the state that all Americans who don’t live in Utah can point to to make themselves feel better about their own state’s alcohol distribution policies. This is what Mississippi must feel like all the time.

You see, in 1933, when the 21st amendment repealed the 18th, despite the protestations of organized crime bosses, finally, you could take a dame out for a steak and a glass of gin and get her blind drunk without fear that the blindness would be permanent. The question of the demon rum was remanded back to the states, who were given wide latitude as to how they were to implement, regulate and, of course, tax the liquor the US Constitution now permitted its citizens to imbibe.

Alas, Republican Gifford Pinchot (no relation to Balki Bartokomous) was at that time smack in the middle of his second stint as Pennsylvania governor. Lew Bryson who runs the excellent NOPCLB blog, calls Pinchot “a leader of the conservation movement, and painfully non-corrupt. One of the great governors of Pennsylvania, but an ardent dry.” In Pinchot’s words, the PLCB was masterfully designed to:

Discourage the purchase of alcoholic beverages by making it as inconvenient and expensive as possible.

You can’t say he wasn’t an effective governor. Pinchot was no friend to the spirits, and his Republican-controlled statehouse actually voted to create the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board in November of ’33 — a full month before the 21st was ratified on December 5th, 1933. The very next day, on Dec. 6th, the state issued 600 licenses.

Now, you know that state store you go into now where the wine bottles stand up straight and the surly staff slouches? As terrible as that is, it’s a far cry from how it used to be. The first Wine and Spirit shops were more like parts counters.

Lew Bryson recalls: “I remember in ’79, I had just turned 21 and went into the Counter Store on Queen St. in Lancaster, and you could only go in about 6 feet, the rest was behind a glass counter. I asked the guy for a bottle of Smirinoff Vodka and he shoved a book at me and without looking up said, ‘code.’ I had to look up the bottle in the book and give him the number then he handed it through the window.” That’s the way all the state’s Wine and Spirits shops worked until the first self-serve store was opened in 1969.

So now, Gov. Corbett will take his shot at lancing the heart of this white whale, whose scarred brow has weathered so many governors’ harpoons. Bryson gives the bill a 40% chance, which he calls “The best odds we’ve had in years. Remember, this is a bureaucracy with its own police force and its own judges which it pays with its own money.” The word “entrenched” doesn’t begin to describe it.

As of this writing, the idea for the bill is just a few days old, and both sides are gonna start to mobilize. Bryson says one of the problems is that the most fervent supporters are those in the southeast and southwest of the state and have greater access to DE, NJ, MD, WV and OH for their liquor needs. “If Philadelphia and State College swapped locations, this thing would’ve been dealt with decades ago.”

I would love to see this legislation pass, if only to eschew the embarrassment I face when people visit from out of town and wonder where the wine aisle is. So Gov. Pinchot, you have fought the good fight, and been an annoying fly in our beer for 75 years. If you ask me, Gov., what you need is a stiff drink.

– Adam Brodsky

Adam Brodsky, is, in no particular order, a World Record Holding Folksinger, Writer, Baseball fan, and Beer League First Baseman who hits for average. His Novel will be out when he fucking finishes it, so get off his back! You can follow him @adambrodsky

[Images via this hilarious PLCB slide show]

  • Hatfielder

    What a brilliant piece. Thanks for a clever, witty history lesson.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000883561791 Alexander Mitchell

    You can always tell a Pennsylvanian when you’re traveling in most of the rest of the country.
    He/she’s the one constantly doing double-takes at the sight of beer and wine in the supermarkets, Whole Foods, convenience stores, warehouse club stores, etc.

  • http://twitter.com/NFR_PHL chris dougherty

    “So now, Gov. Corbett will take his shot at lancing the heart of this white whale, whose scarred brow has weathered so many governors’ harpoons.” Masterful.