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Bill would exempt ethnic markets from holiday blue laws

A bill would allow ethnic stores to open on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
A bill would allow ethnic stores to open on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Shirley Goh/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

Ethnic food markets could join pharmacies, restaurants, and movie theaters among Massachusetts establishments allowed to conduct business on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

A bill that would allow certain food markets catering to ethnic communities to open on the holidays was filed by state Representative Tackey Chan, who said his proposal would benefit immigrant populations that don’t celebrate those days or that have different traditions to go along with them.

Chan, a Democrat from Quincy, said his city is home to a large population of Asian Americans, many of whom are not Christians. Although the bill is driven by the interests of the Asian American community, it would apply to all markets where the majority of products are labeled in a foreign language.

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The state’s so-called blue laws, which date to the 17th century, prohibit large supermarkets and retailers from opening on Thanksgiving and Christmas days, which “impacts Asian Americans who want to celebrate the holidays in their own way,” Chan said, adding that part of the tradition for many Asian cultures is to shop for food on the actual holiday.

The proposal, he said, would be one more amendment among the 55 legislative exemptions that already allow some businesses to operate on those holidays, including pharmacies, gas stations, and some convenience stores. Some of those retailers, he said, stock traditional holiday food items, like boxed stuffing and gravy in a jar, to cater to last-minute shoppers.

Only food markets with more than half of their inventory labeled in a language other than English would qualify for Chan’s proposed exemption. Owners of ethnic markets who choose to open those days would have to seek approval from their local licensing authority, and would have to pay their workers overtime.

This is the third time Chan has filed the bill, after the issue was brought to his attention by the owner of Kam Man Food in Quincy. The bill has never made it past the House’s Third Reading Committee, to which it was recently referred.

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Wan Wu, part owner of the New Jersey-based Kam Man Food and general manager of the Quincy location, said that in Asian cultures, particularly among the Chinese, it is traditional to shop on the holiday for that evening’s feast. It wasn’t until only about seven years ago, he said, that Massachusetts started enforcing its blue laws in Boston’s Chinatown and at other area Asian markets, which had been able to open on Thanksgiving and Christmas, seemingly with no penalty.

“People are not happy because . . . they felt kind of deprived of their choice of doing the shopping on Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Wu said. “The fact that we’re not allowed to open Christmas and Thanksgiving doesn’t really make sense to the Chinese community.”

Wu said about 20 percent of his overall business comes from prepared food sales, with the peak season from November to February as the American holidays lead into Chinese New Year celebrations. He estimates that the Quincy store loses $150,000 in sales for each holiday when it is closed.

The bill’s passage “will be good for our business, but I really truly believe everybody will benefit and nobody will get hurt,” Wu said.

Vicente’s Supermarket in Brockton also used to open its Main Street location on both holidays years ago until the city informed the proprietors that they couldn’t do that, said Brian Vicente, store manager at the new Pleasant Street location. The market caters to a diverse community of immigrants hailing from places like Cape Verde, Haiti, and Brazil.

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Vicente said he is uncertain whether the recently opened supermarket, which also carries typical American products, would meet the ethnic inventory threshold as defined in Chan’s bill, but added he would welcome the opportunity to open on those holidays.

“The people in the community would benefit from that,” Vicente said. “I would like to open because there are people in the community looking for things at the last minute; things they don’t have at CVS, like meat. Perhaps they worked the night before and didn’t have time to go shopping, or by the time they went to other stores, they ran out of the stuff they needed.”

The Massachusetts Food Association , a nonprofit whose members include large chain supermarkets, is not taking an official position on Chan’s proposal because it represents members who fall on both sides of the issue, said the industry group’s vice president, Brian Houghton.

Those in favor of relaxing the rules, “they see the sales that would be there,” Houghton said. “But the majority of [members] are against it.”

Stephen Ryan, executive director of the New England Convenience Store Association , said it also doesn’t have a position on the issue.

John Brothers, executive director of a community organization, Quincy Asian Resources Inc. , said the majority of Asian immigrants in Quincy are not Christian and would probably welcome the opportunity to shop on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

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“Many of them work very hard and very long hours at pretty demanding jobs,” Brothers said. “Many would definitely appreciate, during very limited free time, to be able to shop. . . There’s a convenience factor.”

Nirmala Garimella, copresident of the Indian Americans of Lexington group, said some Indian Americans celebrate several Indian holidays throughout the year where they get together with family, so they would probably welcome the opportunity to be allowed to shop on Thanksgiving and Christmas, which are not as culturally significant. She said the growing community is served by Indian markets in neighboring Waltham and Burlington.

“We do try to celebrate it our own way, and we like to go out and buy stuff,” Garimella said. “We don’t like to be in the house.”

Mei Hung, executive director of Chinese Culture Connection in Malden, a nonprofit focused on building bridges between American and Chinese people, said the bill’s component calling for holiday pay for workers who agree to work those days could make it attractive for those who don’t celebrate the holidays and would prefer to work instead.

In Malden, which has the second-largest Asian population in the state outside of Boston, the measure is likely to be welcomed, Hung said. With so many exemptions offered to other businesses, “Why not the ethnic markets? They’re a service,” she said. “I don’t see why we should prevent anyone from shopping on those days.”

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Chan said he has recently had phone calls from people who are supportive, and wish the effort would be expanded to all markets, as well as from critics who say the state’s blue laws for holidays should stay intact.

“The point of my bill is to point out that these communities are not pooh-poohing or not celebrating these holidays, they’re just doing it their own way,” Chan said. “I’m not creating a situation for the large supermarkets or stores to open that day. It’s a very targeted bill. . .  I’m not making you go shopping. If, as a consumer, you don’t want to do something, you don’t do it.”

For some, shopping on the holiday is a tradition, Kam Man Food manager Wan Wu says.
For some, shopping on the holiday is a tradition, Kam Man Food manager Wan Wu says. Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com.