Tri-Citians eager to buy their favorite brands of booze rushed to private stores Friday, happy to find greater selections, but dismayed at having to pay up to 33 percent in taxes.
"Wow. I've just walked into heaven. Where's the pineapple rum?" declared Kenra Gamble, 28, of Richland, as she walked into Mid-Columbia Wine and Spirits at 1711 George Washington Way in Richland.
Customers were lined up six to eight at a time at all three check-out registers Friday afternoon, the first day that liquor sales were privatized after voters passed an initiative in November.
"It's been like this all day," said Michael Shemali, a co-owner of the store that features 2,200 types of spirits. There were 22 employees working two shifts to cover opening day.
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C.J. Frenzel, who with his wife Kuo-Ying, run West Richland Liquor, at 4083 W. Van Giesen Blvd. where they previously operated it under contract as a state-run liquor store, said Friday was busy, but some customers were upset about the state's added taxes.
"Everything has changed," he said.
While having independent private liquor stores means competitive pricing, customers might end up paying more at checkout than they did at state-run stores because of all the state taxes, Frenzel explained.
"We've become a tax collector for the state, and they do nothing to earn it," Shemali said.
Lorrie Goodrich of Richland was impressed at the selection at Mid-Columbia Wine and Spirits. "It is astounding," she said.
"But when you read the amount of taxes added on, it is a concern. Still, as a taxpayer, I prefer to see it on nonessentials," Goodrich said while pricing some Kahlua.
In addition to the taxes collected at the checkout, customers pay to cover what the state requires from distributors, which includes a $150 million bond plus 10 percent of whatever the wholesale price is, Shemali explained.
Regardless of the taxes, Chuck Harrington of West Richland said he is glad to see competition among the private stores, instead of the fixed price system the state-run liquor stores used.
A 1.75-liter bottle of Jack Daniel's at one store was $37 on Friday, while Harrington said he could get it for $4 less at another.
"I'm retired and I need to make my money stretch," said Harrington as he made a note for himself on his cell phone that a 750-ml bottle of Crown Royal "sipping" blended whiskey was $27.39 in West Richland.
"Prices are going to be all over the map," he said.
Ryan Feil and Amil Cordic, both of Pasco, stopped by the Yoke's Fresh Market on Road 68 late Friday afternoon to price a bottle of pear brandy from Clear Creek in Portland.
The bottle of sweet liquor, with a whole pear inside, was $72.39. But the $3.77 per liter tax imposed by the state, plus a 20.5 percent retail tax and the checkout sales tax of 8.3 percent put the total cost at about $99.
Reil carefully placed the bottle back on the shelf.
"It is really good," he said, slowly backing away.
"But when you like something you have to pay for it," Cordic said as they eased out of Yoke's liquor department without making a selection.
Another shopper, Stan Flaten of Pasco, who was comparing prices on whiskeys, said the state may have gotten out of the liquor business, but it appears it will "make more money than (it) used to."