It’s getting easier and easier to buy a bottle of wine in the suburbs.
Needham selectmen granted liquor licenses last week to five businesses — including a family-owned farmstand — under a new town law that allows retail sales of alcohol for the first time. Next door, Wellesley is mulling allowing grocery stores to sell wine and beer.
“I think there is a culture shift,” said Needham Selectman Moe Handel. “There’s a much more widespread acceptance of a greater degree of tolerance for various lifestyles and tastes.”
The board received 10 complete applications for the licenses. Winnowing it down to five, said Handel, was tough because all the proposals were high quality.
The winners — Volante Farms, Needham Wine and Spirits, Vinodivino, Bin Ends, and Needham Center Wine & Spirits — will give the town a nice array of options, said Handel.
Still, Needham will be monitoring the success of its new package stores. Although six licenses were available, the board decided to hold one back.
“We did want to have one license held at least until we can see how all this works out,” said Handel.
In Wellesley, a citizen’s petition to allow beer and wine sales at full-service grocery stores was originally slated for consideration by Town Meeting in April, but the petitioner decided to defer action to give the Board of Selectmen time to consider it.
“This would be a big change for the town, and we need time to think about the issues,” said the board’s chairwoman, Terri Tsagaris.
Currently, only restaurants with 50 seats or more can serve alcohol. There have never been package stores in Wellesley, said Town Clerk Kathleen Nagle.
Though Prohibition ended in 1933, around 10 percent of Americans still live in areas that do not allow alcohol sales, according to David Hanson, professor emeritus of sociology at the State University of New York at Potsdam, who has been studying the history and consumption of alcohol in America for 40 years.
But what happens when municipalities put that “dry” label up for a vote? “They more likely than not vote to go wet,” Hanson said.
In Greater Boston, limits on alcohol sales have loosened in recent years in Arlington, Harvard, Lincoln, and Weston as residents — and local businesses — grew tired of having to drive across town lines to buy a bottle or order a glass.
There are only eight completely dry towns left in Massachusetts, according to the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission: Alford, Chilmark, Dunstable, Gosnold, Hawley, Montgomery, Mount Washington, and Westhampton. In 2000, according to the commission, there were 20.
Needham was not totally dry when residents voted to allow package stores; as in Wellesley, restaurants were allowed to sell alcohol.
But town officials in Needham felt allowing retail alcohol sales would give the downtown an economic boost. Opponents were afraid they would see a rise in drinking, especially among teens.
That split, said Hanson, is typical in a town considering opening up the sale of alcohol.
“I have to tell you,” he said, “their predictions don’t come true. The people who think that great prosperity will flow from being wet, they don’t find that they become profitable. It just means that businesses are fighting with both hands, not one tied behind their backs. And . . . it doesn’t lead to some moral decay.”
Indeed, some of the most morally strict residents that Massachusetts has ever seen — the Puritans — were great fans of alcohol, said Hanson.
The Mayflower carried more beer than water. Alcohol was considered a gift from God; even the children drank.
“The people who were abstainers were actually sometimes looked on unfavorably: What were they trying to hide? Why won’t they drink?” said Hanson. “There were laws that required drinking establishments so that alcohol would be available to people, especially travelers.”
But attitudes about alcohol shifted in the Bay State, as in the rest of the country, and in 1920, said Hanson, Massachusetts was among the first to ratify the 18th Amendment, which established Prohibition.
But now it appears that the tradition of abstention is falling. And as more and more people become accustomed to package stores and free-flowing spirits, it gets harder to keep small patches dry.
“The population changes, the desires of that population shift,” said Needham selectman Handel. “I think the key is, whatever you do in these things, you make sure you don’t do violence to the way people have been living. . . . You want to manage the changes so it’s gradual enough for people to get used to it, but meaningful enough that it really is change.”