Gillway hopes third time's a charm for rolling back 'blue law'

Bill would allow mid-sized grocery stores to open on holidays
By Jordan Bailey | May 04, 2017
Photo by: Jordan Bailey Working on holidays "wouldn't make a difference" to these two Tozier's Market employees.

Searsport — When Dale Tozier opened Tozier's Market in 1992 in a small building on Main Street, it was not affected by the state law that prohibited grocery stores from being open Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. So he kept the store open for two of those holidays.

As it turned out, Thanksgiving and Easter were "extremely huge" shopping days, he said, and Easter became their No. 1 shopping day of the year.

People always forgot to get something for their holiday meal, usually something that they can't get at a gas station convenience store.

"Cream was a big thing, for all the desserts," he said.

When they expanded to 9,000 square feet in 2001, all that stopped. Customers still ask why the store is closed on those holidays when so many other businesses are open.

It is because of a law that makes it a crime for a mid-sized store to open on certain holidays. Grocery stores with fewer than 5,000 square feet of shopping area are exempt, but Tozier's expansion put the store over that threshold. The law has 33 exemptions that allow a variety of enterprises from bowling alleys to vending machines to stay in service and open for business on those days.

About six years ago, Tozier went to Rep. James Gillway, R-Searsport, for help in changing the law. He argued that with no revenue for the whole day, and with full-time employees' wages to pay, the store takes a financial hit each holiday, making it tougher to get through the winter.

"This size store is being penalized and business given to small convenience stores where the product is really not available," he said.

Gillway agreed to take on the cause.

"These are old Puritan laws, and Maine is one of two or three states in New England that still has them," Gillway said. "We just keep adding exemptions."

Etymologists say reference to these 17th-century laws banning secular activities on Sundays and holidays as "blue laws" is connected to the term "bluestocking," meaning "puritanically plain or mean."

Gillway introduced a bill to exempt all retail from required holiday closure, but he said that bill was "a wash." It was defeated in committee.

Two years ago he tried again, with a bill that would expand the exemption to cover grocery stores of 10,000 square feet or less. That bill failed, narrowly, in the House.

This session he tried a different approach based on a Maine value shared by both parties: home rule. His new bill, LD 488, gives towns the option to pass an ordinance if they wish to allow their 10,000-square-foot or smaller grocery store to open on holidays. If such an ordinance were passed, store owners would still have the final say on whether to open on those days.

"Nobody knows better about the health of Main Street than the board of selectmen and the townspeople," Gillway said. "If you're a good neighbor and you've done a good job and you treat your employees right, the town's going to support you and pass this ordinance."

Gillway believes Tozier's Market meets those criteria. He recalled that the store stayed open during the ice storm of 1998, when the power was out for three days.

Tozier said employees led customers down the aisles with flashlights, wrote out their purchases on paper bags, and used pocket calculators to total their bills. Vendors such as Oakhurst Dairy provided refrigeration trucks so the store could sell fresh milk and meat.

"We still do it that way whenever the power goes out," Tozier said. "We all have such a good time. The customers actually enjoy it with us. It's like a festive atmosphere, even though we're limited on some of our services."

Employees with whom we spoke at Tozier's Market said they would not mind the change.

"It would be good for business to be open for the holidays as long as it is on a voluntary basis for employees with young children at home," said Kelli Richards. "I don't have children at home. I wouldn't want to do a whole shift, but I'd come in for a few hours."

Mandy Freeman of Searsport also wouldn't mind working those days.

"I don't do holidays so it doesn't matter to me either way," she said.

Karen, who didn't want to give her last name, said she, too, does not celebrate holidays so it "wouldn't make a difference" to her.

Tozier said on those holidays the store would run with a lighter crew, and workers would be scheduled on a voluntary basis. Those who work would be paid time and a half "at a minimum," he said. He thinks he would have no trouble finding volunteers.

"On Thanksgiving in particular, our employees are looking for money and any overtime they can get to keep themselves sustainable over the winter," he said.

Owners of larger stores that would not be exempt have not indicated that they find the bill unfair. There was no public testimony in committee against the bill, and Tozier said the larger grocery store operators he's spoken with "want no part of it."

The bill passed the House Tuesday, May 2, with a vote of 79 to 66 with bipartisan support, and Tozier is optimistic that it will pass the Senate, too.

If it does, he looks forward to opening his doors on Thanksgiving and Easter Sunday. But shoppers would still have to buy their eggnog on Christmas Eve.

"I will not be open on Christmas," he said.

 

 

Comments (1)
Posted by: William Kulbe | May 06, 2017 10:36

Toziers is not just a store- they are the community's neighbor and friend.  They support our community in so many ways so I hope this bill passes in order to help them. Besides, we're part of the group that often needs to run out for last minute things on holidays



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Jordan M Bailey
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Jordan Bailey has been working for The Republican Journal since 2013. She studied philosophy at Boston College and has experience in marine science education and journalism. She lives in Belfast.

 

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