Evanston eases rules on sale of alcohol in stores

Every once in a while, Evanston City Council does something quietly.

During the final days of February, at the conclusion of the bluster and bickering that traditionally characterizes the shaping of next year’s budget, aldermen quietly reversed years of liquor-sale policy and effected sweeping changes to the way alcohol is bought and sold in Evanston.

Besides permitting the sale of cold beer and wine, the changes included eliminating the need for a separate liquor area and check-out registers in stores peddling alcohol; allowing the sale of wine and beer in all of the city’s grocery stores; and expanding the liquor-sales period to begin at 8 a.m. and end at midnight, seven days a week.

That’s why, when you walk into a Jewel or Dominick’s, you now see beer and wine displays throughout the store. And thanks to the relaxed liquor restrictions, you don’t have to buy your beer at the photo counter.

Considering the city’s reputation for being a tad behind the times in terms of alcohol, bowling, live entertainment and trick-or-treating, you’d think the rule changes would have elicited more of a hue and cry.

But buried beneath the din of budgetary squabbling, the changes slipped by almost unnoticed.

What was noticed was the $100,000 in estimated new revenue that will be generated by the new laws.

The restrictions on liquor sales have been at the heart of the long-argued debate about Evanston’s appropriate relationship with alcohol. It seems that every time a new grocery store moves in, the debate rages on.

It’s a cosmopolitan college town, some say, and a cosmopolitan college town should not have Prohibition-era ordinances on the books. It’s a socio-economically diverse North Shore suburb, others argue, and the sale of chilled alcohol encourages improper — and potentially illegal — consumption.

But this time around, the debate was strangely muted. Of the aldermen, only Ald. Arthur Newman (1st) formally objected to the changes, citing the argument — supported by some school officials — that the sale of cold beer leads to underage drinking.

Perhaps city officials are finally realizing that the battle over underage drinking doesn’t have much to do with grocery stores.

“We have problems at The Keg (of Evanston) and the 1800 Club, but we’ve had no reported problems with the grocery stores,” said Lt. Demitrous Cook of the Evanston Police Department. “They’re real strict as far as having people check ID.”

John Mundt, the manager at Jewel Food Stores, 1128 Chicago Ave., said he’s received mostly positive comments about the changes in liquor displays and sales. The college kids say it’s about time the store “has cold beer you can buy,” Mundt said.

“When we got the news (about the rule change), it wasn’t like, ‘Great! We’re going to put beer where there’s pop now,” Mundt said. “We put out a few racks of wine, some coolers of beer. I didn’t overdue it.”

And the store hasn’t had any violations, Mundt said, partially because the cashiers who sell alcohol attended a training class sponsored by Jewel.

And, as expected, alcohol sales have increased since the council relaxed the liquor restrictions.

I certainly haven’t seen an increase in public drunken carousing by high school kids since the rules were revamped.

Maybe, just maybe, Evanston can handle the sale of convenient, cold beer without turning into a rough-and-tumble frontier town.

Now about those bowling alleys …