PORTLAND, Maine — State law requires large retailers to shut their doors on Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving. Not all businesses are thankful.
On one hand, it means the 9 p.m. Thanksgiving night department store sales — except at L.L. Bean, which gained an exemption decades ago — aren’t happening in Maine.
Owners of some smaller stores — including G&M Market in Holden and Tozier’s Market in Searsport — told lawmakers they would focus on last-minute shoppers, not the steady march of Black Friday shoppers looking for a head start on their holiday buying frenzy.
Both the Holden and Searsport markets pushed during the summer for two bills that sought to raise a square-footage limit on which stores can open during those holidays, to no avail come this Thanksgiving.
The restrictions, called Blue Laws, linger from a time when Maine businesses were required to close on Sundays. Maine joins Massachusetts and Rhode Island as the only three states still enforcing Blue Laws. That means promotions you may have heard for Black Friday sales starting before the clock strikes midnight won’t be happening in Maine.
The question of whether Blue Laws have outlived their function in Maine continued this year to divide the Legislature as well as grocery and retail advocates, with the first consequences since lawmakers left Augusta in July to come this week.
Shelley Doak, executive director of the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association, noted that her membership is divided on the issue.
She wrote, however, that a majority surveyed in 2013 said that they support staying closed and that “the current restriction gives smaller store owners a chance to enjoy three brisk sales days; especially for last-minute holiday items.”
Stores that occupy less than 5,000 square feet are exempt from the Blue Laws and can open on Thanksgiving. G&M and Tozier’s were previously smaller than the 5,000-square-foot limit, but expansions put them over and they argue that’s something of a punishment for success, especially if the stores’ owners or their family members are the ones working the holiday.
One bill proposed letting stores up to 10,000 square feet stay open if staffed by the owner or the owner’s family, as sought by G&M. Another, sponsored by Searsport Republican Rep. James Gillway, would have let grocery stores up to 10,000 square feet open.
“It is always interesting to find an old law on the books that starts out, reflecting the common values of the day, that includes everyone and watch it over the years, as society changes, take people or groups off until only one is left,” Gillway testified.
The first bill was narrowly defeated in the the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee; the second bill narrowly won the committee’s recommendation, with opposition from Democrats on the committee. That bill later died in the Democrat-controlled House.
The grocery store expansion had support from Republican Gov. Paul LePage as well, with the Department of Labor testifying in favor of the bill.
“I have members on both sides of this issue and some with strong opinions,” wrote Curtis Picard, executive director of the Retail Association of Maine. “Some feel that the competitive pressure to open on those days would be too great. Others feel that competitive pressure is already there from the online sellers. Some feel that designated days to spend with family trump the desires of employees to work more hours or the desires of consumers to be open.”
For now, Thanksgiving remains a time for family or small retail stores in Maine, and for 34 other types of exempt businesses, including newspapers, hotels, restaurants, laundromats, vending machines and ATMs, pharmacies, farm stands, seafood processors, movie theaters, bowling alleys, retail monument dealers, mobile home dealers and venues for “public dancing.”
If they so choose.