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There are more places than ever to buy booze in Clark County — about 76 stores in all.
But this county's drinkers, in search of lower prices, are pouring across the Washington border into Oregon's government-supervised stores, overwhelming the Hayden Island liquor outlet and emptying some of its shelves.
"Business is absolutely insane," said Rob Babin, co-owner and manager of Stateline Liquor just south of the Interstate 5 Bridge.
His store's sales increased by so much over the weekend that Babin had to place an emergency order for 89 cases of liquor. It was the store's first emergency order in 10 years, said Babin, 40, whose family owns two Portland liquor stores.
On Monday he said he was sure the increased business came directly from Washington shoppers who are saying the state's spirits cost more, not less, since the June 1 privatization of the formerly state-run sales system. As expected, a new layer of state fees has raised the retail price of booze anywhere from 25 to 30 percent above the former state-run system's costs.
"I'm seeing a lot more new faces," Babin said. "They're not my regulars."
He said about 70 percent of his customers were already from Washington before the law change, approved in November by voters as Initiative 1183. It took the state out of the liquor business for the first time since Prohibition, allowing grocery stores and variety stores larger than 10,000 square feet to sell hard liquor.
Babin said he’s hired one more employee to keep up with the demand from the surge of Washington customers. It brought the store staff up to 15 employees. He has also increased employee hours to cover the rush.
The law grants a few exceptions for stores that are smaller than 10,000 square feet, including seven former state liquor stores in the county now under new ownership.
Clark County consumers have always had more options than their state counterparts when it comes to nearby outlets to purchase liquor. Many have long exercised the choice to buy cheaper booze in Oregon, where prices were lower than Washington's even before the state privatized sales, said Christie Scott, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.
She said it's too soon to accurately say whether there's been a surge in sales at Oregon liquor stores near the border, since most won't submit sales figures until the end of the month.
However, the agency studied the possibility of higher Washington prices before the initiative took effect. It concluded that 17 stores on the Oregon border could see a $3.6 million to $7 million boost in revenue over a two-year period.
"They (the stores) are seeing a lot more (business) from Washington," Scott said.
In the meantime, the new law isn't working out so well for the new owner of a former state store at 1700 Main St. in downtown Vancouver.
Store co-owner Kamlesh Minhas said the state was one week late issuing the store's liquor license and has also been late delivering some of the merchandise owners purchased for the store.
With her store's late June 8 opening, Minhas said some customers are now complaining about its prices.
"That concerns us a lot," Minhas said. "Vancouver is just a hop away from Portland. We've had some people say they're going to Oregon."