40 Years in Beer, Part Three: Did I really look like a guy with a plan?

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Previously: Part Two: Brontosaurus Stomp, or the time before time began.

In May of 1982 the fine people at IU Southeast told me I had to leave campus.

My protests were in vain; surprisingly enough, my undergraduate academic career had yielded a Bachelor of Arts with a philosophy major and a European history minor.

My grades were good, at least in the core areas, but now it was time to find work, preferably full-time in an era when any job – not just the better ones – was fiendishly hard to find.

This situation called for drastic action, so I went to Steinert’s, drank a few beers, and thought it over.

As oft times before, mindless manual labor (baling hay, ballpark grounds-keeping, even a tragic-comic little league umpiring stint) sufficed during summer months as the job search showed little signs of a pulse. As autumn approached, I became aware that local school systems were short of substitute teachers, with classroom experience blessedly optional.

Intended from the outset as a stop-gap, subbing actually proved to be a reliable daytime option during the school year, albeit hardly lucrative. It left evening and weekend slots to fill with additional part-time work as I toyed with the idea of returning to the ivory tower to become a teacher, lawyer, or PhD.

Spoiler alert: I became exactly none of them.

For package beer sales, Cut-Rate Liquors in Jeffersonville remained my primary option, as it had been when a fake ID was necessary for procurement. I was only vaguely familiar with Scoreboard Liquors, situated opposite the federal building on Spring Street in New Albany, which was a three-lane, one-way arterial pointed directly out of the city like a catapult toward my then-residence in Georgetown.

My decade-long relationship with Scoreboard unexpectedly began in late summer of 1982. A warm body was needed to temporarily fill an evening shift, and a high school buddy, Lynn Funk, was my intermediary owing to his family ties: Jim Creech (who sadly died in 2005) was his cousin’s husband, and had purchased Scoreboard from its original owners in Clarksville.

Scoreboard Liquors had a tiny footprint compared to the square footage of most package stores today, but it was worth Jim’s investment for two good reasons.

First, in 1982 all Southern Indiana settlements with passable bridges or car ferries over the Ohio River to Kentucky enjoyed a government-mandated advantage in alcoholic beverage pricing, and second, New Albany possessed such a bridge, with Scoreboard being perfectly placed to speed customers back to the safety of their Commonwealth after dropping a bundle on booze.

Kentucky’s fair trade law for liquors sales, a legacy of the post-Prohibition era, was a form of minimum price fixing. This is why Cut Rate thrived during the 1970s, and into the 80s. “Cut rate” was true in a comparative sense insofar as liquor (in particular) was concerned, and it was easily accessible opposite downtown Louisville. In New Albany, Scoreboard somewhat mirrored Cut Rate’s advantageous placement.

Business was good those first few years at Scoreboard Liquors, but developments eventually conspired to deprive the store of its initial advantages.

Another package liquor store, Bottles Unlimited, opened on the north side of the block at the corner where the interstate ramp from Louisville merged into State Street, and then Kentucky’s fair pricing laws finally were scrapped.

Bottles Unlimited had a better, more visible location and an owner who pulled lots of working hours herself, always an advantage for a small business. She built up her traffic and efficiently leveraged economies of scale even after the Kentucky law changed, and in spite of a catastrophic fire some years ago. Bottles Unlimited earned its longevity, and remains in business these many years later.

Concurrently, in the early 1980s supermarkets and pharmacies in Indiana were beginning to vend alcoholic beverages as a low-margin “convenience” to shoppers. Smaller package stores like Scoreboard suddenly were deprived of previous “competitive” advantages apart from their monopoly on the sale of chilled beer, which bizarrely, and in a Hoosier twist unique to America, has remained largely constant to the present day.

With market conditions mutating, it became necessary for Jim to reformat Scoreboard Liquors. The task was complicated by his bad health (eventually a kidney transplant was required), as well as institutional inertia.

That’s because Jim’s only full-time employee, store manager Lloyd “Duck” Cunningham, a curmudgeon beloved by customers, and a loyal and utterly dependable person, was also nearing retirement. He wasn’t interested in ranging beyond the tried-and-true plan of operation.

In retrospect I can see that Jim, the classic example of a fellow with a lucrative day job who only wanted a small revenue stream on the side, never had much of a “business plan” for Scoreboard Liquors apart from random scribblings on a cocktail napkin. Nonetheless, Jim was smart, and he understood we’d have to adapt.

So, how did a night clerk like me fit into this?

Scoreboard needed a niche. The travel bug was starting to bite, and I was immersing myself in Europe, where better beers were being brewed. No other package store in Southern Indiana emphasized imported beers, save for Cut Rate.

And, I enjoyed drinking them.

Nachand Beverage in Jeffersonville had the most imports among the wholesalers, although in the beginning there wasn’t a supply line between Nachand and Scoreboard, as Ed Schuler wouldn’t sell across the county line out of personal principle. Eventually we found a way, and in the interim Jim allowed me to begin purchasing available imports and stocking six-packs in the walk-in zone soon to be known as the Import Door.

There was something else.

New Albany didn’t boast avant-garde culture in any sense, for beer or otherwise. Unless I could explain to customers why imported beers were worth the added expense, I’d be left to consume the profits myself.

Demand would have to be created, and that’s what I set about trying to do, because imports fascinated me AND they might be good for the bottom line, too.

In turn, this meant I had to learn more about beer, because a personal education in fermentation was unlikely to emanate from local beer businesses of the period. Wholesalers dealt in the mass market. They were the sort who’d tell you that Bock derived from the annual spring cleaning ritual of scrubbing brewing equipment to release twelve months of chunks and grime.

But in fairness, in 1982 almost no one hereabouts knew much of anything about brewing. American beer had been degraded for so long that old drinkers’ tales mutated into gibberish. It’s just the way it was, and so off to the public library I’d go in search of information. Fortunately, it was located just a block west of the liquor store.

A genuinely providential, life-altering experience came only when I happened upon Michael Jackson’s The World Guide to Beer (1977), which by the early 1980s often could be found remaindered on discount tables at chain bookstores in malls across the nation.

Jackson’s book, and the writer himself, was in the process of exceeding cult status and elevating beer almost singlehandedly into a topic important enough to discuss in mixed company. A whole first generation of “beer geeks” took its cues from Jackson’s classic survey of world beer history.

I was one of them, and set about stocking the shelves of a single walk-in door at Scoreboard with imported beers, and talking about them.

Next: 40 Years in Beer, Part Four: Those Scoreboard daze of old (first movement)

The cover photo is from my collection. Gene Lind was a lawyer with an office next door to the liquor store. Duck came out ahead in the 1985 NCAA “March Madness” pool, hence the sign, which I could play with as I pleased because drivers on a one-way street never even saw it.

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