Berkshire Co-op seeks to sell wine and beer; stores object

By Christopher McDermott

GREAT BARRINGTON — The Berkshire Co-op Market has applied for a beer-and-wine license adding to the list of applicants while the Select Board considers issuing up to four more.
And at the same time local liquor store owners have again voiced their objections to any loosening of local regulations on liquor licenses.

The Select Board is planning a hearing for October 14 to take public comment from both sides and consider revising a 2003 policy, which would, in effect, free up four more wine-and-malt licenses for Great Barrington businesses to apply for. Currently, seven businesses in town hold full liquor licenses and one holds a wine-and-malt license.
The Co-op hopes to be at the top of that list of applications, said Daniel Seitz, who sits on the Co-op’s board of directors as treasurer.

The Co-op is expecting to move into a new larger store on Bridge Street in January or February, which would provide the Co-op with almost 50 percent more space in total and almost twice as much retail space, Seitz said. They’re hoping to be able to offer beer and wine with the rollout of their new store.
Seitz said he thinks the Co-op should have the opportunity to enter into the market, noting that the store’s selection would be small:

“We’re planning on seven feet of shelving for wine and four feet of shelving for beer,” Seitz said.
He went on say that the selection of wines and beer would be sourced in ways similar to the Co-op’s food and other grocery selections, prioritizing locally grown products that haven’t been produced with pesticides or genetically-modified organisms.

“We’ll have a different focus and what we do offer will be a very small section… And we’re the sort of store where if we don’t have something we tell people where they can get it. We believe that collegiality is good for business owners.”

Sietz said this will prevent the Co-op from encroaching on the business of the town’s other liquor merchants.

“One of the glaring omissions that we don’t have is not being able to provide wine and beer to our customers,” Seitz said. “In order to be successful in our new space we will have to expand our revenue by about 50 percent over the course of several years. We also see wine and beer selection as benefiting the business. And frankly, we think anything that benefits us as a business benefits the community.”

Seitz said the Co-op aims to be a positive force in the community. They donated more than $15,000 to charitable causes last year, support programs like Berkshire South Community Center and Greenagers and have a designated staff member who provides educational programming for kids focused on cooking and healthy eating.

At a Select Board meeting at the end of August, when the members were set to discuss possibly opening up more licenses, owners from local liquors stores appeared to express their objections, noting that, among other things, they had invested heavily to purchase their licenses when they started their businesses.

Matt Masiero, co-owner of Guido’s Fresh Marketplace, said a decade ago he paid almost $50,000 for his license.

Joe Aberdale of Aberdale’s in Housatonic said banks consider the licenses to be financial assets.

They’ve emphasized that alcohol is a potentially dangerous substance that needs strict regulations.

Ed Domaney, of Domaney’s Liquors and Fine Wines, said that opening up just one additional liquor license could open up more detrimental possibilities to the town.

“No one has an objection to Matt Rubiner or the Co-op Market purchasing a liquor license, but the idea is that everybody else had to go through the channels to purchase a license. And we have liquor licenses galore in our town.”

Matt Rubiner, owner of Rubiner’s Cheesemongers & Grocers, also expressed interest in applying for a wine-and-malt license at the Select Board’s August meeting.

Domaney said the store owners’ opposition to new licenses is not out of fear of more competition.

“There is no doubt that businesses in this town are competitive. Nobody is friendly when it comes to pricing things alike,” Domaney said. “Everybody has their own style, everybody is competitive, everybody is aggressive. More than anything we compete against the big ads in the newspapers that float around in Springfield.”

Domaney and other store owners have emphasized that, just as the Co-op gives to local charities, the established liquor merchants also support local hospital galas, nonprofits and sports teams. They also emphasized safety concerns.

“Alcohol is a controlled substance,” Aberdale noted at the Select Board’s August meeting. “You as the licensing authority regulate the licenses and, in turn, control the alcohol distribution of the town. You entrust that to us the license holders to engage in good business practices to protect the community….  We collect fake identifications. We protect the community.”

Domaney said he sees the licenses as sacred.

“I realize these are good people and valid, good businesses that support the community but it’s still not right,” he said. “These are regulated substances and there’s a reason for these licenses. And I truly believe that if [town leadership] allow this, they have failed me, Plaza, Trotta’s, and so many more – especially the people in the
community interested in public safety.”

Seitz says he wants the Co-op to have its opportunity.

“We want to have a pretty narrowly focused wine-and-beer operation to be successful in this community,” Seitz said, “because we, too, would like to share our success with the community as we’ve always done.”

The Select Board is expected to hear more on the subject, and potentially the selectmen could come to a vote on whether to issue more licenses at their October 15 meeting.