Battle over booze licenses brewing in Great Barrington

Ray Almori, owner of Plaza Package in Great Barrington, shows the Select Board a stack of fake IDs confiscated at his liquor store. He and other package store owners are fighting the possible release of four existing beer and wine licenses.

GREAT BARRINGTON — There were cries of "unfair" and "competition" at town hall Monday night. The reason? Beer and wine.

Word on the street is that two separate applications for beer and wine licenses might soon hit town hall. That "word," as Select Board Chairman Stephen Bannon put it, had half of the town's package store owners at the podium Monday to tell the board that the alcohol sales market in town is saturated, and that changing a town policy to release four remaining licenses would be unfair and harmful in this town with a full-time population of about 6,850.

"The pie is only so big," said Joe Aberdale, owner of Aberdale's in Housatonic. "We have it split up pretty good right now ... and if we continue to add stores, we're going to split that pie up even further."

"It is a pie, but I reject the notion that it is a finite pie," said Matthew Rubiner, owner of Rubiner's Cheesemongers & Grocers on Main Street, referring to the seasonal swell in population with the arrival of second homeowners and tourists. While he said he hasn't filed an application for a license, there were hints that he might like to to sell small amounts of small production wine.

Yet currently, the pie isn't cut the way the state would have it based on the town's population. The Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission's regulations say the town can have seven total licenses — two all-alcohol, five wine and malt.

But the town has ended up with eight total — seven all-alcohol, and one wine and malt. This happened when, at annual town meeting in 1983, voters agreed to convert seasonal licenses to year-round all-alcoholic licenses.

This leaves those four available wine and malt licenses, the subject of Monday night's passion. But in 2003 the board closed the gates on releasing these, in a 5-0 decision on grounds the town had enough package stores.

Now the Select Board has to decide whether to change this policy. It voted 3-2 Monday to table the decision to allow time to consider it, and to listen to an industry representative who Aberdale said agreed to come talk to the board.

Trying to make a living

Aberdale said selling liquor, beer and wine is a hard way to make a living, with its shrinking margins and tight regulations. More competition would be harmful, he said, and releasing any of the four beer and wine licenses approved by the state's Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission could knock the delicate economic booze balance out of whack.

"You're going to create a very, very slippery slope," added Ed Domaney, owner of Domaney's Liquors & Fine Wines on North Main Street. "We have enough [licenses]."

Matthew Masiero, co-owner of Guido's Fresh Marketplace on South Main Street, said that slope is populated by other stores that are currently poised to snatch a stake in the market.

"Price Chopper ... they'll be the first ones in line," he said, adding that the Berkshire Co-op Market, in its expansion, might also seek a license, as might Cumberland Farms, the Lipton Mart and Sunoco station. "Are you gonna open a Pandora's box here?"

Rubiner told the board that he thinks the 2003 decision to restrict the four licenses may have been in response to his application, a move he called "arbitrary and capricious."

"I don't understand how it is the work of the selectmen to restrain competition," he said.

Rubiner called the doomsday scenarios by other store owners "hysteria."

"No one is suggesting more than four," he said. "This is not creating new licenses."

Rubiner pointed to his own hardship as a merchant, and how not releasing the existing licenses is a blow to free enterprise. "I patronize all of their businesses," he said of the package store owners, "And I know that we all have our struggles. I think of it less as competing, and think of it more as trying to make a living in this small town."

Rubiner went on about the other side of "unfairness."

"We sell cheese. Matt [Masiero] sells cheese. Eddie [Domaney] sells cheese. We all sell cheese," Rubiner said. "They sell chocolate. I sell chocolate. We all sell chocolate. They sell cured meats. I sell cured meats. They all sell wine — I can't sell wine, not because there are no licenses available."

Hinting that perhaps he might seek one of those licenses, Rubiner said that, in any event, what he would be selling would not compete with the others.

"Some one little bottle of organic or biodynamic wine made in tiny quantities in Languedoc in France or in Oregon or in New York state that none of these other guys carry," Rubiner said. "Wines that don't enjoy an easy path to market."

Masiero said he's not so concerned about competition from the "obscure thing" Rubiner wants to sell, but also said that the store owners in this room might be able to source the rarefied wines if need be.

And Ray Almori, of Plaza Package on State Road, came armed with a box full of fake IDs he had confiscated from underage purchasers over the years to demonstrate that these existing package stores are engaged in community service and monitoring as well.

But this only gave Rubiner more ammunition to hammer out his point further.

"I reckon not one of those licenses was seized by some kid trying to buy a biodynamic bottle of wine made on a little farm somewhere in Tuscany," he said.

But the charge of potential unfairness is heightened by license transferals that came at great cost when some of these store owners started their businesses.

"Ten years ago we had to buy an all-liquor license at $50,000," Masiero said. "So I think it's unfair."

The board is now caught in a quandary of whether to allow the free market to do its thing, or whether to "protect businesses that are here," as board member Ed Abrahams put it.

"Can we meet in the middle?" wondered board member Kate Burke, about the possibility of issuing fewer than four licenses.

Helen Kuziemko, administrative assistant to the town manager and the board, said the board would then have to change the policy, and add limits, up to four, as it sees fit.

But Rubiner said he understands the concerns of the other store owners, since they are his worries, as well.

"This is not an easy town, as every one of these license holders has made clear," he said. "It's brutally seasonal."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.