Pennsylvania's original state stores "looked like commissaries in Russia," admits Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board member Bob Marcus. "This," he says as he looks around the rebranded Wexford Fine Wine and Good Spirits Premium Collection Store, "is the antithesis."
Even as Harrisburg debates proposals to privatize liquor sales, the Wexford store — like a companion location in Monroeville — marks a new effort by state stores to appeal to consumers.
The newly refurbished stores, which are an improvement even on the newer "Premium Collection" stores, are a complete departure, resembling high-end private liquor stores found in other states (minus the beer, of course). Hardwood floors, warm lighting, extra-wide aisles and brightly lit displays invite customers to linger and browse.
"The new design — the color scheme, the openness — it makes it easier to shop here. It's not as confusing as other stores," says Wexford general manager Ron Dreshman.
But while the stores offer some expanded liquor choices, don't look for the basic makeup of spirits to change much. Despite the classy decor, funky-flavored vodkas still outnumber small-batch bourbon and unusual cordials.
"We continuously add and subtract spirits according to what the consumers want," Marcus says. "Our computers are able to track what's popular and what's not."
Education is a priority at these large new stores (both are over 10,000 square feet). A focal point is a center island used for tastings, cocktail demonstrations, and a place for consumers to ask questions; a trained retail wine specialist is on hand.
Of course, most state stores still don't inspire much excitement. You can still find plenty of drab locations, some with ragged carpets perfumed with a vaguely bar-like odor. But the next Western Pennsylvania location slated for improvement is the East Liberty store, in the Eastside development; later this year, it will expand to include the space occupied by a neighboring bike shop.
"Wait until you see what we have planned for that location," says Marcus. Although he couldn't provide a precise timeline for the East Liberty store's overhaul, he promises, "It's going to be unbelievable."