Look, we can argue all weekend about whether liquor sales on Sunday are a good idea or not. As you know, at the present time, you cannot purchase alcohol on Sundays in Minnesota, at the behest of a ragtag coalition consisting of the Minnesota Municipal Beverages Association, the Teamsters, some small liquor store owners, Republican and DFL legislators, and Methodist lawmakers born in Vermont who’ve been dead since 1880. It’s a surprisingly contentious issue, and one that attracts many, many comments here on MinnPost, as evidenced in Briana Bierschbach’s article last week, and Jeff Severn Guntzel’s breakdown on the issue from three years ago.
Maybe it’s a theocratic throwback that restricts individual freedom and consumer choice. Maybe it’s a wedge for independent liquor stores against corporate liquor stores that could afford to adjust staffing, or maybe it’s a day of rest for hardworking small business owners. You could argue about it for a long time. Definitely for at least for half an hour. In fact, maybe you should save that argument for the next time you’re on a car trip, because half an hour is just about exactly the length of time it will take you to drive from Minneapolis to Hudson, Wis., on a Sunday afternoon to buy beer.
The Hudson Sunday beer run is a Twin Cities tradition as old as the bridge crossing the St. Croix River. It’s one I’ve participated in a number of times, on Sundays where someone was having a dinner party and I realized I forgot to buy a bottle of bourbon the previous week. On any Sunday, a steady flow of traffic down I-94 into Hudson consists of Minnesotans that were either too lazy, forgetful, or inconvenienced to buy beer on Saturday night.
And Hudson is ready for them. Within a few minutes of the first couple of exits on I-94 East, there are no less than six fully stocked, fully staffed liquor stores ready to sell as much alcohol to Minnesotans as they can handle. Driving over the St. Croix, you pass by the 1950s-era timber tourism sign that reads “WISCONSIN WELCOMES YOU – RECREATION INDUSTRY AGRICULTURE.” The “OPEN FOR BUSINESS” addendum that Scott Walker had added to the base of the sign takes on an entirely new meaning on a Sunday evening. Hudson is indeed open for business.
The drive through suburban Washington County isn’t one of the better ones the state has to offer, especially on a dark Sunday winter evening. The only real things of interest zipping through the 94 corridor — at least from the highway — are the 3M headquarters, a skyscraping monument to suburban technocratic pragmatism immortalized by painter Carolyn Swiszcz, and the Woodbury water tower, which you’ll notice appears to have the town’s logo hand-painted on the front. Otherwise, once you leave St. Paul, there’s not much but strip malls containing repositories for home furnishings along the way.
Hudson liquor stores are a surprisingly varied bunch of businesses. Most of the liquor stores easily accessible off of 94 – Setter’s, Spirit Seller, Hudson, Northland, Chicone’s – are in fairly standard strip malls, next to chiropractors, jewelers and chain coffee shops. They do share some similarities. Setter’s, one of the most accessible, is a pretty standard Hudson liquor store. It’s easy to get to from the highway, it’s well-stocked with local and national brands, the clerks are friendly, there’s a good back story (longtime manager buys store!), and there’s some light decoration – an American flag hanging in the back, and, best of all, a reprint of an antique map of Hudson over the beer freezer, reminding you where you are.
In terms of the interiors, all of the stores have three things in common: (1) They’re playing classic rock. (2) They’ve got the football game on. (The Denver-San Diego game last Sunday was on everywhere.) And, if the license plates on the cars parked outside are accurate, (3) they’re patronized almost exclusively by Minnesotans. Every clerk I asked put the percentage of Sunday customers from Minnesota somewhere between “75 percent” to “99.99 percent,” by one clerk’s admittedly unscientific calculations. “And,” he added, pointing out the window, “they park all weird, in the middle.” Sure enough, one of the cars with Minnesota plates had double-parked; apparently, the driver was so desperate to rush in and get beer he couldn’t be bothered to stay within the lines.
I suppose I did detect a slight, barely perceptible tension between the Wisconsinites who sell the Sunday booze and the Minnesotans who want to buy it. It’s kind of like the old joke: What’s the difference between a Baptist and a Methodist? The Methodist will say “hello” to you in the liquor store.
I got the sense that everyone in the store was a Minnesotan, and they were all vaguely guilty and irritated by the fact that they had to make the trip over the river to buy their booze. I’m from Minnesota and I forgot to buy beer yesterday, their silent scowls seem to suggest as they studiously avoid eye contact with me, but you’re in the same boat, partner, and here we are in Wisconsin together. Much of the branding of the local beers trumpets the fact that they’re available “only in Wisconsin.” The clerk who pointed out the subpar quality of the Minnesotans’ parking chops did so before I showed him my Minnesota ID. I felt like I was getting privileged information. Of course, his coworker was wearing a Twins hat, so maybe I was just reading into it too much.
Most of the liquor stores in Hudson are located to conveniently serve the Minnesotan blue-law refugee looking to pull off the highway and then right back on, but there are some worthwhile exceptions. Located about halfway between the Hudson interstate exits and the downtown area, on a stretch of winding, rural road, is Casanova Liquors, which may actually be the most perfect liquor store in the Midwest. “Not just that liquor store for a Sunday beer run anymore” says their Twitter page, and that’s no joke.
Besides Casanova’s historic pedigree, which I’ll go into momentarily, it’s the only liquor store I’ve ever been to where the clerk checking me out asked if I’d seen the public art outside. Sure enough, on the side of Coulee Road across from the store, is “the eighth wonder,” as it’s called by the road sign out front – a tube from the underground cistern, run up a tree, turned on, and the frozen water creating an Antarctic ice sculpture, illuminated by spotlights. It’s an eerie, wonderful sight that reads like a natural formation at first glance. Mike, the store’s stocker, modestly shrugs off the praise. “We just tapped the cistern and ran it up the tree.”
The store itself is fantastic, too. Opened as a brewery in the 1890s in a location right by caves and natural springs, it’s built right into the side of a bluff. The interior is wood and brick, decorated in what I’d describe as “historic north woods liquor store / parlor chic,” with a taxidermied moose head, Tiffany lamps, and photos of the Casanova Brewing Company in its brewing heyday all over the walls. Industrious-looking, sepia-toned Germans with jaunty mustaches gaze back out at you.
That cross-river competitiveness manifests itself here at Casanova, too. In the back section, an employee named Johnny proudly shows a list he’s compiled of “Beers Not Found in Minnesota.” And it’s comprehensive, too: 24 great American brews, from Ale Asylum to Toppling Goliath, all ready for sale seven days a week, and all emphatically nowhere to be seen in Minnesota’s liquor stores, even if they were open.
Sunday is always their peak day, Mike tells me. “We’re always staffed up,” he says. “Seventy-five to ninety percent of our business on Sundays is from Minnesota.” On the way out back to the car, past the Eighth Wonder and the wooden doorways leading to the caves, I pass six cars in the lot. All of them have Minnesota plates.
See more of the liquor stores of Hudson on The Stroll’s photo supplement, Stroll On.