Thomas Liquors has sold wine, beer and spirits on St. Paul’s Grand Avenue for more than six decades, but next week brings a historic first when the family business somewhat reluctantly opens its doors to customers on Sunday.
On July 2, Minnesota will drop its more than century-old prohibition on Sunday liquor sales, and the small, brick-walled shop in the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood won’t be alone in opening for a seventh day. Though some stores plan to keep the old tradition and remain closed, hundreds of corporate, independent and municipal liquor retailers across the state are stocking up, rescheduling employees — and hoping shoppers make it all worthwhile.
“People have said: ‘Well, you don’t have to be open,’ ” said Mike Thomas, the store’s third-generation owner, who opposed the change when it was under consideration at the State Capitol. “Well, you really do, if you’re any kind of businessman at all.”
Many liquor retailers share Thomas’ mixed feelings about Sunday hours. But after the Legislature approved the change and Gov. Mark Dayton signed it in March, Thomas said it was clear his business had to adapt to changing times.
Under the new law, liquor retailers can open their doors from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays — still a shorter window than the rest of the week. Nothing is forcing store owners to open on Sundays, and individual cities have the option of voting to limit those hours even further or maintain the prohibition on Sunday sales.
“We all need a day off,” said Brian Nelson, who decided his Hibbing liquor store, the Bottle Shop, would remain closed on Sundays. Nelson said he figures customers are used to stocking up for the weekend on Saturdays and that a few extra sales wouldn’t be worth the change.
Minnesota’s policy shift on the issue was significant after decades of upholding so-called “blue laws” that banned alcohol and automobile sales on Sundays. Failed efforts to overturn the liquor law were frequent at the Capitol in recent years, but this year a crop of new lawmakers more open to the change — along with growing pressure from major liquor retailers — was enough to finally overcome entrenched opposition.
Some smaller store owners like Charlie Capesius, of Riverside Liquors in Shakopee, feared the shift would hurt their shops and boost big-box retailers. But as July 2 crept closer, they mostly shrugged and began plotting a seven-day-a-week schedule with employees.
“I know I’m going to do better — it’s just another day of sales,” Capesius said. “It’s just the headache.”
Some of Minnesota’s more than 240 city-owned liquor stores, particularly those in smaller communities where there’s little competition, have been more tentative.
In Windom, in southwest Minnesota, the city council voted last week to give Sunday sales a trial run at its municipal liquor store. River Bend Liquor manager Joe Audette said he’ll tally up weekly sales receipts from July 2 to Labor Day, see if they outpace last year’s business, and then the council will decide if it wants to stay open on Sundays for good.
Audette said his store doesn’t face the same kind of competitive pressure as counterparts in larger cities. It’s the only option in Windom; the next-closest liquor store is 20 miles south in the city of Jackson.
“I don’t really see a lot of people going out of their way to buy a case of beer,” he said.
It’s a similar story in Pelican Rapids, in west-central Minnesota. Maggie Johnson, who manages the city-run Pelican Liquors, said the store will give Sunday hours a try for the summer months, hoping to capitalize on the tourists who flock to the area’s lakes and resorts. Out-of-staters have long been unpleasantly surprised to learn they can’t buy booze on Sundays, she said.
But Johnson said it’s still hard to tell if another day with the doors open will pay off.
“This is summertime in lakes country,” she said. “It’s kind of hard to judge from week to week how it will go out the door.”
Some retailers around the state are less willing to take a chance. In northern Minnesota, the Ely City Council voted to continue to the Sunday sales ban after the three local, independent retailers banded together in opposition to the new law.
A handful of city councils, including those in Bemidji, Walnut Grove and Hanska voted to keep their municipal stores — the only liquor retailers in town — closed.
Winona liquor retailer Ken Siebenaler, who runs Third Street Liquor, has a different concern. He said the limited Sunday hours don’t make sense for communities like his that are situated so close to other states with more flexible laws. He figures he can’t compete, so he’ll keep his doors closed on Sundays.
“All your boaters, campers, fisherman want to be on the water early, so they’re going to go over to Wisconsin,” Siebenaler said.
Tony Chesak, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, said he expects that once liquor retailers get some Sunday sales experience under their belts, they will have suggestions for lawmakers for tweaks in the law. The hours of operation, for example, could be narrowed or widened in the future.
“Just because it’s the law doesn’t mean it’s necessarily going to stay that way,” Chesak said. “It depends on the license holders and how they adjust to it.”
In St. Paul, Thomas is already making tweaks. His shop will open at 11 a.m. but close at 5 p.m., an hour earlier than necessary. He’s started dreaming up some new promotions to ensure more customers show up.
Though he was “big-time opposed” to Sunday sales when lawmakers were debating the measure, Thomas acknowledged that he and other store owners are likely to see things differently in a few years.
“I’m expecting initially it’s going to be slow, but it’s going to get better and better,” Thomas said. “Maybe three, five years from now, we’re going to say: ‘You know what? Sunday turned out to be a great day.’ ”