Liquor World in Porter Square

Liquor World in Porter Square, like many liquor stores in Cambridge, already sell their nips at the counter. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge stores have a new policy on nips as of Oct. 1: The small bottles of liquor must be kept on or behind a liquor store counter in a case to “prevent easy access to the bottles and help to reduce the possibility of underage sales.”

The License Commission instituted the rule Tuesday, with chairwoman Andrea Spears Jackson reminding that the conversation had been sparked by a June 16 hearing about Inman Square Wine & Spirits, a liquor store that got commission approval and is due to open in August despite significant neighborhood resistance.

It follows a move made by Somerville officials in the spring, and in each city officials and liquor store owners have expressed puzzlement at the appearance of proposals to solve problems that don’t seem to exist.

Already compliant

There was indeed discussion of nips at the Cambridge commission’s June meeting, including a neighbor request to stop the new store from selling them at all. The commission’s accommodation was to keep nips from being sold before 11 a.m. and that the bottles must be kept “behind the counter, not on the counter, and not readily accessible.”

But responding to the neighbors’s request, Jackson said, “No, we can’t dictate what somebody sells. I mean, that’s an individual choice, and I don’t see that within the purview of the board. Nor would I want it to be.”

At the June meeting and again Tuesday, Jackson and other officials noted that nips are already almost universally kept at the counter and in the control of liquor stores’ sales staff.

Still, said commissioner and city fire chief Gerald Reardon, nips in Cambridge have been an “ongoing problem for years.”

“It’s the biggest complaint we get,” Reardon said.

How the complaints relate to underage drinkers isn’t clear, but they aren’t about the theft of nips from package stores by kids. Elizabeth Lint, executive director of the License Commission, said in an email supplied to Cambridge Day that her records showed nothing about that in the past 15 years.

Different complaints

The aim of reducing underage sales, though, was never mentioned by opponents to Inman Square Wine & Spirits. Those neighbors spoke about a history of sales to the homeless, customers double-parked cars outside the store and blocking traffic and “inebriated pedestrians and drunken arguments” under the previous ownership, when the site at 1221 Cambridge St. was called Prospect Liquors and run by Dhiru Patel.

In two hearings in 2012, it was charged that Patel’s store was selling nips to homeless and drunken people, but kids stealing or drinking out of nips was not raised as a concern. One neighbor said they were picking discarded bottles of “fifths and nips up off our street to try to keep them out of the hands of the kids that are out in our neighborhood.”

The high-end Wine & Cheese Cask, a little over a half-mile away in Somerville. was identified as the model for the new store by applicant Walter Sousa – a local, well-respected property owner who ran Prospect Liquors from 1985 to 2005, before Patel, and now will again. But neighbors were more worried about Martin Brothers Liquors, only a minute’s walk away on Cambridge Street.

A supporter of Sousa and his new store, Mary Higgins, told the commission that opponents “should be worrying about the Martin Brothers Liquor Store that’s closer to them, where the nips are found on the street and the homeless people are guzzling down the cheap stuff that they sell in that store.”

On Tuesday, Reardon said the new policy would level the playing field for liquor stores while keeping them “available but not readily available.”

“Is it necessary?”

The hearing was attended by three liquor store owners and managers, including Ben Weiner of Cambridge’s Sav-Mor and Somerville’s Kappy’s. All said they already kept nips on or behind the counter, where employees had to hand them to customers.

“The ability for someone to sneak up and steal nips is extremely remote. My concern, and that of other retailers, is that sometimes regulations get passed and it may not be necessary to control the situation. I’m not sure the situation in Cambridge – I wasn’t aware there was a problem,” said Weiner, giving his biography as a liquor store owner of more than 40 years and as a past president of the Massachusetts Package Stores Association. “I guarantee most of the nips are purchased by adults of legal age, not stolen by minors. So what I would ask is, before a regulation is passed: Is it necessary?”

“I just don’t think it’s as big a problem as it’s presented as being to the public,” Weiner said.

An official balks

In April, a Somerville license commissioner, John McKenna, said the law wasn’t needed.

“You want a regulation for the sake of a regulation, where the problem doesn’t exist,” McKenna said to Cory Mashburn, the director of the city’s Office of Prevention, according to a story by Danielle McLean in the Somerville Journal. “Creating regulations because they are regulations, where no problem exists, makes no sense to this conservative commission.”

Mashburn, whose job is to prevent underage drinking, agreed there was no current problem of teens stealing nips from Somerville stores, according to the Journal story, but the law was “intended to prevent such a problem from happening in the future.”

The Cambridge commission approved the new rule, 3-0.

This story was updated July 28, 2015, to add Lint’s comments about License Commission records.