End of era for Friday Harbor's liquor store

Tyler Felton, who has worked at Friday Harbor’s only liquor store for just two and a half weeks, stocks the shelves, while customers peruse the variety of choices. “Vodka is our most popular beverage,” said another employee, Sally Rogers. - Journal photo / Cali Bagby
Tyler Felton, who has worked at Friday Harbor’s only liquor store for just two and a half weeks, stocks the shelves, while customers peruse the variety of choices. “Vodka is our most popular beverage,” said another employee, Sally Rogers.
— image credit: Journal photo / Cali Bagby

Christmas comes early at the only liquor store in Friday Harbor.

In fact, it arrives about six months ahead of schedule. That’s according to Penny Dunn, who has managed San Juan Island’s sole hard liquor outlet for the last 24 of her 30-year tenure at the state-run liquor store.

“Christmas is the biggest time of the year for just about every liquor store on the mainland,” Dunn said. “Some of them have waiting lines just to get inside and security guards for crowd control because they’re that busy during the holidays. I have my Christmas here in July.”

But there won’t be another.

While her counterparts on the mainland grapple with the influx of holiday business, Dunn and her three employees are preparing for the end of an era, and for the end of employment.

Friday Harbor’s outlet will be among the 180 or so state-run liquor store that will close by June 1, if not sooner, as Initiative 1183, which essentially kicks the state out of the liquor business and allows private retailers to sell spirits instead, passed with nearly 60 percent approval in the Nov. 8 election.

In San Juan County, voters approved the statewide initiative by 53 percent, with 3,827 “yes” votes eclipsing 3,436 “no” votes.

Dunn said she saw the “writing on the wall” in October, as polls began to show I-1183 gaining momentum. She remains philosophical about the prospect of searching for a new job after 30 years with one employer — Washington state.

“I guess I’ll go with the flow and hope something better comes along,” she said. “You can either look at it negatively or positively. I am not going to take it personally.”

Under I-1183, stores of 10,000 square feet or more are allowed to sell liquor, benefit from volume discounts on liquor and wine, and can warehouse those products themselves rather than having to rely on distributors for supply.

The state liquor board still must develop a process through which it will auction off state-owned liquor stores and the licenses that will allow private companies to sell and distribute spirits.

State liquor board spokesman Brian Smith said that a license that will allow a private company to sell liquor in Friday Harbor will be auctioned off sometime in the near future. Smith said the state-run liquor store is slated to close by May 31, if not sooner.

Through it may pale in comparison in volume to mainland stores, Friday Harbor’s liquor store turns a pretty penny.

In 2010, it produced $2.6 million in gross sales, roughly $400,000 more than it did in 2005.

The four state-run liquor in San Juan County, with two on Orcas and one on Lopez, generated $4.3 million in gross sales a year ago, combined.

While those sales figures may be alluring, John McBride, general manager of Valmark, which operates Friday Harbor’s two biggest grocery stores, said the company has yet to decide whether it will venture into the hard liquor business.

McBride said the company is still evaluating details of the I-1183 legislation and the up and downs of getting into the business of selling liquor.

“At this point we’re not really sure where we’re at,” he said.

While the town’s largest grocery store company remains undecided, local public health and public safety officials bristle at the prospect of liquor becoming more convenient and more accessible to the public.

Sheriff Rob Nou said making alcohol more accessible in a troubled economy is a springboard for its greater abuse.

John Manning, director of the county public health department, predicts Friday Harbor will have more than one liqour store sometime in the near future. He said that’s one more than the community really needs.

Manning added that training and oversight of employees will be pivotal in helping to keep alcohol out of the hands of minors once the state is out of the business.

He’s “optimistic such training will happen.”

“Under state control it ran really well,” he said of oversight on liquor sales. “Once it’s in private hands it really varies, as we’ve seen with tobacco. It took some time, but we have good compliance now.”

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