Connecticut’s Blue Law tradition may be ending
Question: What’s the difference between mom-and-pop grocery and drug stores that have to compete for customers, and mom-and-pop package stores that don’t?Answer: Carroll Hughes.The demise of the small, locally owned store has been a sad fact of American life, but thanks to the skills of lobbyist Hughes, the package stores have been spared. But if the governor has his way, the package stores are going to have to face real competition for the first time from supermarkets, convenience stores and even gas stations. They’re even going to have to compete with each other by deciding whether to open on Sundays, like other stores. Hughes hasn’t stood alone in preserving the small package stores; he’s had some help over the centuries from Puritans, Prohibition and even Mad Dog Killers. All, in their way, saw to it that the owners of the state’s small liquor stores received special treatment and were allowed to do business in their state protected cocoons with protection ranging from price controls to Sunday closings.In the beginning — literally — the original settlers set a nice precedent by seeing to it that the Sabbath was kept holy by issuing 44 Blue Laws governing personal conduct. Blue Laws 18 through 20 mandated that no one could run, walk in his garden or elsewhere, travel, cook victuals, make beds, sweep house, cut hair, shave or kiss their child on the Sabbath Day. There weren’t package stores then, so who knew they’d outlast just about every other outlawed Sabbath activity? From this modest beginning, the Blue Laws were repealed and modified but the idea of protecting the Sabbath from some secular encroachments survived over the decades and the centuries.In Connecticut, these steady moral habits seemed to prevail longer than elsewhere. (See Griswold v. Connecticut.) Most stores here were closed on Sundays until the State Supreme Court declared that law unconstitutional in the 1970s, but the package stores were allowed to remain closed.Prohibition left the state with a hangover in the form of a 1933 law that, for no logical reason, required package stores to close at 6 p.m., but allowed drugstores to sell liquor until 11 p.m., a convenience for those who enjoyed using both stimulants. The package store owners, before they enjoyed the lobbying services of Hughes, required six years to convince the legislature of the injustice of all this and in 1939, all liquor outlets were allowed to stay open until 11 p.m. Then, the Mad Dog Killers, Joe Taborsky and Arthur Culombe, effected another change in the law.The two committed a series of armed robberies in which they pistol whipped and killed merchants and customers before they were tracked down and arrested by the legendary State Police Det. Sam Rome. The pair’s victims included the owner and a customer at a New Britain gasoline station, two East Haven shoe store customers, a Hartford pharmacist and an East Hartford package store proprietor. Two other package stores were robbed by the pair but the owners survived beatings.Only one of the five people murdered by Taborsky and Culombe was in a package store, but the store owners cited the killings in asking the legislature to push back their closing time from 11 to 8 p.m., which the legislators did, but not until 1967, seven years after Taborsky was executed.Since then, under the lobbying skills of Hughes, the package stores have withstood numerous attempts to change their cozy arrangements. The legislature did move the closing time to 9 p.m. in 2002 over protests that the additional hour would result in a statewide crime wave but Hughes and his association have preserved Sunday closing while 48 other states let liquor outlets open on the Sabbath.But the package stores have also been allowed to enjoy price fixing, which requires customers to pay more than a reported $7 for the same wine or $9 for the same liquor as consumers in neighboring states. This has prompted consumers to take the surprising step of driving a few extra miles to New York or Massachusetts and buy cheaper booze — and not only on Sunday. It has also caused Connecticut to lose lots of tax dollars, something this governor finds objectionable. This leaves poor Carroll Hughes in an unaccustomed tough spot, so he’s already dropped Sunday closing and is watching nervously as his moms and pops face the loss of their price monopolies and the prospect of going the way of other mom-and-pop institutions. Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at email@example.com.