Six months have passed since Caribou Traders Liquor Store opened in Bethel. It’s the only liquor store in town after the state Alcohol Beverage Control Board refused to renew AC Liquor Store’s license last May.
Caribou Liquor sits on the edge of the seawall, facing the Kuskokwim River. Many people say that it’s the nicest part of town, or that it used to be.
“I can watch the Kusko 300 from my porch, see the boats coming and going,” said Brandon Leary, who lives just a few doors down from Caribou Liquor. “It’s just the coolest thing about living here, and I see it just getting ruined now.”
He’s been in Bethel for over 40 years, and he says that a lot has changed since the store opened.
“You gotta keep everything locked up nowadays,” Leary said. “I’ve had people sleeping in my truck, I’ve had people out on my deck, I’ve had people drinking in my yard.”
Walking along the river used to be the thing to do, but now Leary says that it’s not safe, and that’s not just Leary’s opinion.
“The numbers are clear,” says former Bethel Police Chief Burke Waldron. “When a liquor store opens in Bethel, the police department has more calls.”
But Waldron doesn’t blame Caribou Liquor.
“They’re a permitted, licensed business doing what the law allows them to do.” Waldron said. “At times, they’re going above and beyond what they’re required to do to try to minimize the impact.”
Caribou says that it voluntarily limits customers to three bottles a day, cards everybody that comes in, and employs a security guard in the evenings. General Manager Todd Perez said, “I think you always have to prove your worthiness, whatever city you’re in, whatever business you’re in.”
Some people want Caribou to prove its worthiness beyond Bethel. Bottles often travel to dry communities, like Akiak. Akiak Tribal Police Officer Kenneth Andrews says that all the villages along the river feel the impact of Bethel’s liquor store.
“There’s been more deaths from all the other communities, even ours.” Andrews said. He blames Bethel for selling alcohol. “They’re not worried about the other communities. They’re just worried about themselves down there.”
But in Bethel, some people just want a beer after work, and they ask ‘where’s the harm in that?’
Patrick Ayres, who’s checking out at Caribou, is one of those people.
“I bought a 12 pack of beer,” Ayres said. “Because it’s salsa night. I’m taking salsa dancing lessons. You gotta have a beer or two before to loosen up a little bit.”
The contrast between seemingly harmless fun and tragedy and death is startling, but along the Kuskokwim River, both can be outcomes fueled by alcohol. And for now, Caribou Liquor is the only legal liquor store around.