Rita Blewett meant to get out of the liquor business three years ago.
The Kendrick, Idaho, woman thought the time was right to sell the tiny liquor store she runs under a contract with the state. Her kids were off to college. Her husband, Bill, was ready for a change.
It didn’t turn out to be that simple. “I’m still here fighting,” she said on a recent spring morning.
Blewett is fighting to keep liquor stores in Idaho’s small towns. As a small-town business booster, she worries that any time a customer has to go to the city to buy one thing, they’ll also fill up their car with gas, eat out, buy groceries, do other shopping, and small-town merchants will lose. Her town is just 25 miles from Moscow or Lewiston.
She’s not alone in her fight. The new chief of the state Liquor Dispensary says keeping liquor available to Idaho’s thousands of rural and small-town residents should be one of the agency’s goals. New rules now being studied at the agency may solve Blewett’s dilemma.
Part of the problem is that a smalltown liquor store, by itself, doesn’t earn much of a living.
Idaho sets the prices the liquor sells for, and allows its contractors an 11.3 percent commission. “Liquor in a little town isn’t something that’ll support you. You have to have another business,” Blewett said.
In her case, it was her husband’s insurance business. She worked as the secretary, keeping an eye on the liquor store from her desk.
When a customer walked in, she walked through small swinging doors into the liquor store, waited on the customer, then slipped back to her secretary’s desk.
She and her husband found a buyer for the building, the insurance agency and the liquor store together in 1992. But the state said if the liquor store changed hands, it would require the new owner to buy the liquor inventory. The state owns the inventory now.
That kind of investment, for the trickle of income it would bring, made the deal untenable for the buyer.
So the Blewetts sold the insurance agency, but kept the liquor store and building. Now Bill works for WalMart in Lewiston, and Rita still goes back and forth from her secretary’s desk to the liquor store when a customer comes in. She also fires off letters and makes telephone calls.
“Kendrick could lose its liquor, or I could stay indefinitely and commit my time to fighting this program that I don’t think is good for Idaho,” Rita Blewett said.
Blewett notes the state has a higher profit margin, about 34 percent, from its contract stores than from the new, private stores that own their own inventory.
The state makes an average 32 percent from those stores.
Under the proposed rule changes, the stores with state-owned inventory would be able to continue under the same terms after a sale, as long as the buyer is acceptable to the state. The rules still leave the decision up to the dispensary, and Blewett isn’t sure if she’s satisfied. “I’ve still got some questions,” she said.
xxxx Liquor sales in North Idaho Here are gross liquor sales from 1994 for individual stores around North Idaho. Post Falls $2,006,073 Coeur d’Alene, 12th St. $1,524,405 Coeur d’Alene, Govt. Way $1,304,440 Sandpoint $1,308,216 Hayden Lake $1,069,439 Priest River $ 657,752 Coeur d’Alene, NW Blvd. $ 506,151 Bonners Ferry $ 480,857 Rathdrum $ 429,388 St. Maries $ 447,788 Kellogg $ 399,554 Wallace $ 351,933 Spirit Lake $ 234,893 Pinehurst $ 221,000 Bayview $ 204,073 Plummer $ 147,782 Worley $ 83,346 Harrison $ 78,956