On the first bright, sunny Saturday morning in early summer of 1982, I ran up the steps of the local state-run alcohol store in a small town in Finland. I was 24, out of college but playing at graduate studies and a girlfriend while trading carpentry work for room and board with a Finnish family. I was looking forward to enjoying a weekend at the lake with my Finnish “brother.” The family summer cottage was an hour away near an even smaller town with no ALKO store, as the state-run shops are known in Finland.
We wanted to get an early start so had timed our arrival to coincide with the opening hour of 9 a.m. We were a tad early but the lights were on; I yanked the door handle only to hear the k-chunk of the lock and looked up to see the bemused faces of the store clerks milling about. “Now they must think I’m an alcoholic,” I said to my buddy. “No, alcoholics know when it opens,” he replied.
Thirty-four years ago, the Finnish ALKO store was a stodgy place; store clerks with the demeanor of Communist apparatchiks and outfits to match, three varieties of grain alcohol, a couple of vodkas, and a wine list featuring Hungarian reds and Polish whites. Kind of like the ABC stores of today in North Carolina.
My local ABC in Mooresville doesn’t even stock vermouth, a key component of the most popular cocktail in America. Asking about Campari at another ABC nearby, I was directed to sloe gin by the yawning staff. Searching in Statesville for a maraschino liqueur, a clerk laughed when I asked. I found what I was looking for on a back shelf, to hoots of surprise, five minutes later.
Today, alcohol sales in Finland are still controlled by the state. However, one glance at their website, http://www.alko.fi/en (in English!) will reveal that government-run doesn’t have to mean poorly-run. Clerks in ALKO stores throughout Finland, including the one in the little town where my wife grew up, have actually tasted what they sell and are trained to describe the products to choosy customers.
Now, comrade, click on over to http://abc.nc.gov and experience the despair of a consumer with no options. Visit most ABC stores in North Carolina and you will get a shrug unless you are looking for Jack Daniels. Have you ever seen an ABC clerk come out from behind the cash register? Speak Spanish?
There are many who believe nothing run by the government (except the Army!) is worth a flip. It doesn’t have to be that way but let’s leave that discussion for another forum. Reasonable people understand that free markets don’t work perfectly in all industries. Imagine our highway system left to private enterprise. But, can anyone think of a good reason liquor sales can’t be trusted to the free market? What is keeping it from happening? Get better or get private, N.C. ABC.