Beer at your bookstore or nail salon? Alcohol at unexpected businesses could draw customers — but also health concerns

Wandering around Echo Park recently, Tyler Sharkey was pleasantly surprised to find that he could now grab a beer at his neighborhood bookstore, Stories Books and Cafe.

He’d already discovered some other unexpected places nearby with booze: Golden Saddle Cyclery, a Silver Lake bike repair shop with an entrance sign that boasts “official day drinking location,” and an in-store bar at the downtown Whole Foods Market.

“Shopping is annoying, and even at a bookstore it’s nice to get a little buzz going,” said Sharkey, 32. “Every store should have an option to get a drink.”

Soon they might. Movie theaters, grocery stores, nail salons, fast-food restaurants and other businesses that haven’t typically offered alcohol are trying their hand at it, hoping to draw customers with craft beer, wine and other offerings. Two new state laws have made it easier for some businesses to provide liquor.

For public health researchers, that has raised some red flags. Excessive alcohol consumption is a serious yet often overlooked health problem, and they are wary of a future in which every store also has a bar.

“The funny thing about alcohol is that we’re all so familiar with it we’ve almost gone blind seeing the problems,” said Dr. Paul Gruenewald, a senior research scientist at Oakland’s nonprofit Prevention Research Center, which is sponsored by the government-run National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

Business owners say adding alcohol is a way to cater to customer demand.

“It was always part of the overall idea of the place,” said Alex Maslansky, co-owner of Stories Books and Cafe, which began selling beer and wine this year after being open eight years on Sunset Boulevard.  

Supermarket chains Whole Foods Market, Gelson’s, Pavilions and Ralphs have also recently added bars to some of their stores in Southern California. Starbucks already serves beer and wine at 70 locations in the state. Barnes & Noble held a grand opening this month  for its first location that sells alcohol.

Public health officials say they have no problem with people getting a drink at the movie theater or after work. But the more places there are to drink, the more people will drink, experts say.

“No, they’re not forcing people to drink, but ... if you provide them with more opportunities to do so they will do so,” Gruenewald said.

A couple times a week, Kyle Blair stops by the downtown Whole Foods, which is a few blocks from his apartment. The grocery store opened last year with a gastropub called the Eight Bar with more than 30 beers on tap.

“I can get a beer and then the groceries,” said Blair, 41. On a recent Friday afternoon, he sat at the bar and sipped an India pale ale before shopping.

A five-minute walk from Whole Foods, the Ralphs grocery store downtown also has an in-store bar — an inconspicuous counter lined with bar stools between the bread aisle and the salad bar.

“The first time I saw it, I was like, ‘No way, that’s not a real bar,” said Justin Davis, who lives nearby and shops there frequently. 

On his next visit, Davis, 28, set down his half-filled basket and ordered a glass of wine. “It was kind of peaceful,” he said.

It’s too soon to know what the impact of these new in-store bars will be, said Dr. Gary Tsai, medical director and science officer for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s Office of Substance Abuse Prevention and Control. But in general, communities with more places selling alcohol have been shown to also have more violent crime, car crashes and emergency room visits, he said.

An L.A. County report released last month found that cities in the county with numerous bars and other places serving alcohol were twice as likely to have higher rates of alcohol-related hospitalizations.

Experts say that’s because if there are a lot of bars on a block, drink prices fall due to competition and people become more likely to barhop and get drunk.

Business owners, however, say that alcohol is only an option and that people who do partake don’t usually have more than one beverage at their establishments.

Mat Lageman recently ordered an India pale Ale at a Starbucks in Beverly Hills. When you buy alcohol at Starbucks, baristas bring the drink to your table, sometimes accompanied by toasted nuts and pumpkin seeds.

“It’s like drinking at a library. You’re not going to get your frat buddies to say, ‘Let’s go to Starbucks,’” said Lageman, an actor and a bartender who lives in Hollywood. “It’d be like getting loaded at church.” 

Some health researchers say they’re worried that the wide availability of alcohol at traditionally temptation-free places such as Starbucks will make it harder for addicts to abstain from drinking.

But Lageman, 44, said he likes meeting his friend who’s in recovery at the coffee shop, because Lageman can order a craft beer of choice while his friend can get a coffee drink.

Still, experts say that the profusion of alcohol can normalize drinking in a way that’s generally bad for public health.

Because alcohol is seen as fairly benign, people often don’t realize their drinking habits border on dangerous, experts say. (For women, unhealthy drinking is more than three drinks in a single occasion or more than seven per week. For men, those limits are four and 14, respectively.) 

Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill this year that allows nail salons and barber shops to serve their clients one complimentary drink, without a liquor license. Another bill allowed vendors to offer beer samples at farmers markets starting this year.

In the last 10 years in California, the number of alcohol licenses has increased by 19% while the state’s population has increased by 9%, according to the California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control

Jim Sweeney, managing director of the Stores Consulting Group, said he thinks even more businesses will start serving drinks in the coming years. The more time patrons spend in a store, the more they’ll buy, he said.

“I’ve never see anybody introduce it and say, ‘This isn’t working for us. Let’s take it out,” Sweeney said. 

Oren Katz, business committee chairman of the Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council, said he feels "besieged" by the number of places now serving alcohol, from coffee shops to grocery stores.

“If you want to walk your dog, must you always have drunk people around you?” said Katz, who is a professor at Cal State L.A..

Some cities in California, such as San Francisco, have put moratoriums on new liquor licenses in certain neighborhoods.  Burbank and Montrose residents fought against Starbucks when it wanted to apply for alcohol licenses for its branches there. But for many, the bookstore or coffee shop has become a better alternative to a bar.

Stephanie Chaney, 37, often heads to the Starbucks at Hollywood and Vine near her apartment. 

The first time she went there earlier this year for a glass of Cabernet, she met a guy who asked her on a date. She said people notice she’s drinking wine instead of coffee and tend to ask about it.

“I haven’t met anyone else, but it’s still a fun experience,” she said.

soumya.karlamangla@latimes.com

Twitter: @skarlamangla

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