The View from the Other Side of the Liquor Counter

By Kenneth Garger 06/08/11

What do alcoholics look like from the other side of the counter? A young man who worked at a liquor store during college describes the peculiar habits and patterns of life inside a liquor store.

The author at his post, plying bottles of self-medication. photo via Kenneth Garger

A couple of years ago, in between breaks from college, I came home to labor at a family-run wine and liquor store on a strip-mall in Westbury, New York. When I started first stocking and selling bottles behind the counter, I was 19—too young to buy the booze I was selling. And too young to know how widespread alcoholism is in middle America. Naively, I had assumed that the only alcoholics in the world were vagrants and panhandlers out on the street.

Prior to my stint as a liquor salesman, I was, as I say, ignorant. I never fathomed that so many ordinary-looking individuals rely on alcohol to get by on a daily basis. As the weeks turned to months, I began to catch on that the well-dressed, middle-aged woman who comes in for Sauvignon Blanc to complement her fish dinner one night, Cabernet Sauvignon with her steak the next night and a bottle of Pinnacle whipped-cream vodka for Friday night, may just be an alcoholic. It is no coincidence that her consumption runs according to pattern. And on the days that she didn't come into my store, she may well have stopped by another liquor store—there were upwards of-10 in a five-square-mile radius of our town.

At first, the customers were virtually indistinguishable from one another: mostly middle-aged, middle-class working people, they would bark out their order and run. The store was down the street from both a jail and a hospital, so we had a steady clientele of sheriffs (one bought a pint and a half of Hennessy cognac every day) and nurses (they favored wine) at odd hours. Between 3 and 5 p.m., a crush of schoolteachers would stop in.

Over the years, I undoubtedly came into contact with hundreds of alcoholics—some quite obvious, while others flew under my radar. A few customers were visibly intoxicated, especially on the weekends.

Holidays were naturally when the store was busiest—times for family gatherings and parties, and therefore times of heavy drinking. "Going off to the party," customers would mutter.

On a typical day about 25 percent of the customers who walked through our doors showed visible alcoholic tics. "Give me some of that medicine," the boldest ones would growl with a wink.

However, over the course of my breaks and summers, I did manage to build memorable relationships with certain customers, noticing their schedules, their quirks—and, of course, what they liked to drink. I began to think of these people as the regulars. Most turned up at the store like clockwork, anxiously scanning the counter until they discovered the bottle they were seeking. Others staggered the time of their arrival. But all of them showed up on a daily basis, with their faces emitting a magenta hue and their hands trembling ever so slightly.

As I hustled through the Christmas season and the extended weekends during the summer, my regulars were less noticeable. Among the circus of holiday-goers, they drifted into and our of the store like apparitions. Most of the regulars always purchased the same item, which happened to be low-cost brands, so they were in and out before I could even give them my recognition. The new faces during the holiday periods usually translated to the possibility of a lucrative sale, so less attention was devoted to the low-profits derived from the sale of a pint of Georgi.

During holidays, I was encouraged to offer up recommendations of high-cost products. Many of our customers were ill-informed about wine so I conjured up supposedly high-quality, expensive wines, but not once did any recommendation arise from taste-induced expertise. I simply quoted the descriptive labels on the bottles, along with gathering customer feedback, and I came off as a wine "aficionado."

I also became adept at identifying the peculiar little habits and patterns that many people exhibit when buying alcohol: the kid-in-a-candy-store exhilaration and relief when they first walk into the store, the nervous look around to see if there is anyone else they know, the excessive politeness and gratitude as they make the purchase. Many customers would offer unsolicited nervous explanations about why they were buying alcohol, particularly if they asked for one or more of the many brands of one-shot miniatures behind the counter: “I'm sneaking them into a concert," they would claim, or: "They're just stocking stuffers," "I only need one tablespoon for a recipe," “it's a gag gift.”

Even our most unceremonious clients were a bit abashed to reveal the full fury and breadth of their alcoholism to a stranger—even a floppy-haired college kid who came and went from season to season. In reality it was my duty as an employee to keep them swimming in booze. Although I thoroughly enjoyed working the holidays, it was the time surrounding them that shaped my tenure, the time when I was able to personally interact with the regulars and analyze their alcoholism-generated tactics.

On a typical day about 25 percent of the customers who walked through our doors displayed visible alcoholic tics. "Give me some of that medicine," the boldest ones would growl with a wink. But making light of their "problem"—and the frequency with which they came into the store—was the most common trick people used to hide their shame.

Quietly filling their orders with a smile, I came to see myself less like a salesman than a licensed pharmacist dispensing medication to ailing patients who were desperate to just get through the day.

I sold half-pints of Georgi vodka to an ice cream man on a weekly basis. There were the two mailmen who stopped in between their rounds, sometimes two or three times a day. And how can I forget the painter who needed an entire jug of wine each day to master his trade. I watched the condition, both mentally and physically, of one customer severely deteriorate in the span of about a year.

But the experience of being a liquor salesman, which I had given hardly any thought to when I took the job, also changed me in an unexpected way. By the end of my tenure, I had acquired a burgeoning sense of guilt for supplying so many apparent alcoholics with the substance that was destroying their lives. 

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Ken Garger is a reporter for the New York Post. You can follow him on Twitter.