The University of Pennsylvania Has a Drinking Problem

With Penn cracking down on student drinking, the closing of the 41st and Market state store may be more than mere coincidence.

IF PENN DID conspire in the closing of that liquor store, it’s understandable. Colleges can’t win when it comes to student drinking these days. When I was an undergrad, we marched to demand that the administration stay the hell out of our business. Since then, judicial rulings and helicopter parents have driven colleges back into the role of in loco parentis, with increasingly heavy-handed overseer duties. What the courts and deans and Mom and Dad can’t curb is the desire of the college student to par-tay.

We may even be encouraging it. We work so hard these days to eliminate risk from our children’s lives. Driven by the fear born of 9/11, by milk-carton reminders about stranger danger, by product recalls and warnings about tainted food, we strap kids into baby seats, swaddle them in bike helmets, organize their playtime into regimented sessions of soccer and SAT tutoring. When they head off to college, they’ve never been in charge of anything, let alone themselves. Suddenly, they’re free to get shit-faced and balance on balcony railings. So they do.

In February, I spoke with a Penn student named Alex Ball. He’s a senior, majoring in the biological basis of behavior. He grew up in Maryland. When he came to Penn, he was unfamiliar with the state store system. “I’d heard it was draconian and backward,” Alex told me, “but my recent dealings have enlightened me even more.”

He’d been dealing with the LCB because he’d started a business called Penn Delivers. You could email or text him, and he’d bring you a bottle of wine or gin. (“Mourning the untimely demise of 41st Street Wine & Spirits? Cast off your sackcloth! Dry your eyes! Because now Penn Delivers!”) “It’s an idea that was born out of necessity,” he told me. “Penn students have a hard time finding alcohol since the state store closed.”

When we spoke, Alex was just coming off his first weekend of deliveries. “I made eight,” he told me. “Mostly party staples—rum, vodka, some wine.” It’s not just liquor, he added: “I picked up two cigarette packs at a convenience store. I’ll bring whatever you need.”

Alex’s business plan was simple: He charged a flat $5, plus $2 per item. He got to the state store via SEPTA: “It’s the most efficient method. I don’t have a car.” Did he worry about toting booze on the bus? “Not at all.”

He’d also just had his first conversation with an LCB lawyer about what he was doing. “It’s not expressly illegal,” he noted. “There are gray areas in between delivery and distribution and retail. My understanding is that resale is different from distribution,­ which requires a liquor license”—an expense he couldn’t possibly afford.

“We’re working it out,” he said sanguinely. “I know the service can come out on top.”

Alex described himself as “a career entrepreneur.” He already has a business transferring vinyl records to CDs or MP3s. He saw himself as filling a void: “The fact is, college students are going to exercise what they consider their right to drink. I don’t want to run afoul of the regulations, but within the legal boundaries, I want to facilitate that.”

In fact, he had big plans: “I’d love to expand. It’s highly lucrative. If we can get through the legal issues, it’s the perfect opportunity for me. I’ll do some advertising, start with other campuses in University City and then outsource it.”

“Franchises?” I asked.

“Yeah, franchises,” he said.

The next time Marcy called for a ride to the state store, I mentioned Penn Delivers. “I’m not paying an extra $7 for a bottle of wine!” she said indignantly.

Less than a month later, Alex learned he’d have to buy a “transport for hire” license from the LCB. He’s no longer delivering alcohol, and has phased out his cigs-and-chips operation, too. Meantime, the LCB decided on a site for the displaced Penn liquor store. It will be housed in what’s now Risqué Video, an adult-video store at 43rd and Chestnut. It makes sense. Who rents porn DVDs anymore?

There’s no timetable yet for the new store’s opening. When I spoke with the LCB’s Stacey Witalec, she said, “We hope to finalize within six months.”

“Oh! That’s not so bad.”

“That’s just finalizing the location—the real estate issues,” she clarified. “Six months until construction begins. If things go well.”

Marcy’s in a two-year master’s program. I’m going to suggest she head out of state for her Ph.D.