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Wells Liquors owner: Allowing chain stores to sell alcohol in Maryland will run hundreds of independent retailers out of business | COMMENTARY

Display of wine at Wells Discount Liquors on York Road.
Display of wine at Wells Discount Liquors on York Road. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

With the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of small business owners are in a fight to survive — and that is on top of what was an already cutthroat marketplace crowded with multibillion-dollar chain stores padding their bottom lines at all costs. In many industries, we have completely changed our business model; restaurants are now food delivery only, local makers and artists sell their wares completely online, retailers now have employees dedicated to managing the outdoor lines that are a result of pandemic related capacity rules. And far too many florists, restaurants, retail shops and boutiques have been forced to go out of business entirely.

Despite that, in Maryland, a corporate interest group has begun pushing to allow chain stores like Walmart, Dollar Tree and Royal Farms to sell alcohol. The inevitable outcome will be a too-familiar scenario: hundreds of independent, locally owned alcohol retailers across the state will be put out of business by national chains.

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“Shop small” may sound like another phrase de jour, but its impact is real: When you buy from a local merchant, that toy, book, sweater or takeout helps support not only that small business but also the locals it employs. The same is true for independent alcohol retailers, which are locally owned and, in many cases, family-owned businesses. My store, Wells Discount Liquors, employs 42 full-time and part-time employees. The longest serving employee has been with us for 33 years. The ripple effects of small businesses like mine are far reaching. As an independent alcohol retailer, we stock numerous local Maryland craft beers, wines and liquors — directly supporting other Maryland small businesses. The distributors that help us keep those products stocked are local, independently owned Maryland companies, too. Together, we contribute to Maryland’s economy not only through sales but, just as importantly, through supporting other Maryland small businesses. Big box stores crowd out small businesses; there’s no debating that. But it’s not just my livelihood that’s at stake; it’s the hundreds of people who, directly or indirectly, are supported by my store — my employees, brewers, truck drivers, salespeople, warehouse workers and many others.

In Maryland, over the last decade, we’ve seen locally owned bookstores, hardware stores, even coffee shops and dry cleaners close up shop when corporate giants move into town. Many Maryland suburban roads look the same, dotted with the same big box retailers in town after town. And this was before COVID-19 hit Maryland small businesses so hard.

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Independently owned liquor stores, bars and restaurants are among the last of the “Mom and Pop stores” in Maryland. Do we really want to make it harder for locally owned small businesses to keep their doors open during this crippling pandemic?

I have lived in Maryland my entire life and owned my store for 50 years of its 84 years of existence. Our ties to the community run deep; in our stores, we know many of our customers, their stories and what matters to them. We’ve made a conscious effort to promote “Made in Maryland” brands because we know how hard those Maryland craft brewers, winemakers and distilleries work to bring their products to consumers in a marketplace that favors huge conglomerates. We host tastings and provide premiere promotional space to Maryland products and customers often seek us out to shop local. Our local brewers, winemakers and distilleries will suffer if independent retailers close because, while chain stores may make big promises about featuring local products, in the end, national brands will dominate.

Corporate America is doing better than ever, pandemic and all, often at the expense of everyone else. We are so grateful that during this holiday season, our neighbors and customers made an effort to shop local small businesses. They have made a huge impact for Maryland families who rely on these local jobs. Just as consumers are more focused than ever on supporting locally owned businesses, this is the wrong time to tip the scales in favor of big corporations over locally owned Maryland small businesses.

Joann Hyatt (jhyatt@wellswine.com) owns Wells Liquors in Baltimore County.

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