March 10, 2002, Sunday


Attention, Shoppers

By CAREN CHESLER (NYT) 2827 words

PARAMUS -- IT is Saturday afternoon in Bergen County, and the traffic on Route 17 in Paramus is backed up for miles as people head to one of the borough's four sprawling shopping malls. The parking lot at Garden State Plaza, the granddaddy of them all, is already filling up, and a line of cars is snaking through the aisles, searching for that rare empty space.

Inside the mall, a shoe store that is going out of business is packed with young women shouting out sizes to a lone salesgirl. Lines at most of the stalls in the food court are 10 deep. Nearly all the benches around the mall are occupied but for one, where someone has left an uneaten piece of pretzel.

Yet in Teaneck, a mile away, the shopping district is as quiet as Christmas morning. Like many downtown areas that saw their customers flock to the malls, the Cedar Lane business district was left with an odd array of mom-and-pop shops that do not see much pedestrian traffic. Among them is a hat shop, a pet store, a lingerie shop, a dusty camera store and a disproportionate number of nail and hair salons, which appear as frequently as black keys on a piano.

Shoppers won't find a Gap store here. On the other hand, parking in the municipal lots is not a problem.

Teaneck's business manager, Meryl Layton, says the business district is withering because of Bergen County's antiquated blue laws, which prohibit most shops that sell clothing, furniture, building supplies, home furnishings and appliances from opening on Sundays. And as long as the blue laws are in effect, Ms. Layton says, she will not be able to persuade stores like the Gap or Ann Taylor to open there.

''It's not as if people are sitting around the fireplace, participating in family activities,'' said Ms. Layton. ''They're getting into their cars and shopping. They're just not shopping in Bergen County.''

For that reason, she has vowed to join forces with the local chamber of commerce to overturn what she views as archaic laws that are a vestige of the country's puritan past. The blue laws were first enacted in New Jersey in 1854 but were later repealed. The Legislature then enacted a new statute in 1959, which counties could adopt by referendum. Every one -- with the exception of Bergen -- has since repealed that it.

In this day and age, blue laws in most parts of the country have been wiped from the books as quickly as malls have sprouted up. Yet Bergen County -- affluent, densely populated and a stone's throw from New York and home to just about every major retailer in the Northeast -- has steadfastly chosen to keep the doors shut on Sunday.

One reason, many residents agree, is the number of cars that flood the malls and clog the roads. Sunday is the one day a week when residents of Paramus say they get their roads back.

For his part, Mayor Cliff Gennarelli of Paramus, who strongly supports the ban on Sunday shopping, is preparing to do battle with Ms. Layton and others who would like to see the stores open.

But those opposed to opening stores in Paramus on Sunday are only one strand in the dizzying web of interests that threaten to weigh in on the debate.

The large retailers in the Paramus malls say they want the blue laws repealed because sales figures would be an average of 20 percent to 25 percent higher if they could open on Sunday. However, some of the large mall owners want to retain the laws because they are convinced that officials in Paramus will retain the local ordinance banning Sunday sales. If malls in the rest of the county can open, they reason, their malls will be put at a competitive disadvantage.

Then there are the Orthodox Jewish merchants -- who Ms. Layton says own half of the shops on Cedar Lane -- who also want to see the blue laws repealed because their stores are already closed on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Yet the churches in the county would prefer to keep Sunday, their Sabbath, as a day of rest.

And the merchants who are most ambivalent are the owners of the mom-and-pop stores in Teaneck, many of whom like having Sundays off. As a result, Ms. Layton says stores like Williams-Sonoma and Starbucks are unlikely to open there any time soon.

''The town is certainly affluent enough,'' she said. ''It just isn't open for business enough.''

Ms. Layton and several local chambers of commerce have asked Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat from Bergen County, to sponsor legislation that would enable municipalities to choose for themselves whether they want the blue laws to remain in effect. Ms. Weinberg has agreed, and she says she is drafting such legislation.

To be sure, several downtown business districts in Bergen County have attracted upscale stores despite the blue laws. Ridgewood, for instance, has a flourishing downtown, with such chains represented as Laura Ashley, Talbot's and Williams-Sonoma. Englewood has a Victoria's Secret and an Ann Taylor, Fort Lee a Benetton.

''They've all accepted the fact that they can't open on Sunday, and they're still here,'' said Angela Cautillo, executive director of the Ridgewood Chamber of Commerce, though acknowledging that Ridgewood was one of the wealthiest town's in the county, on par with Summit and Westfield.

Nor is this the first effort to roll back the blue laws in Bergen County. In referendums in 1980 and 1993 residents voted by a ratio of 2 to 1 to retain the laws.

But this time may be different. While the residents of Paramus as well as the county's Republican legislators in Trenton have opposed past efforts to overturn the law, Ms. Weinberg, a Democrat, might get more traction on the issue this time around.

''Loretta has a stronger position there than she's ever had,'' Ms. Layton said. ''And certainly the Democrats are stronger than they've been in a long time.''

A grass-roots effort to roll back the blue laws is already taking hold. Local governments in Teaneck, Fort Lee and Rutherford have passed resolutions asking the state to allow them to opt out of the county's blue laws, and officials in Englewood, Fair Lawn and Ridgewood say they may follow suit.

Still, Mayor Gennarelli of Paramus, who prevailed in 1993 in retaining the blue laws, says he is not deterred.

''We're going to raise a very large amount of money, and we are going to fight this movement with every resource available,'' he said.

Like Ms. Layton, he too has initiated a grass-roots effort to gain support, and he says he is in the process of talking to business owners and officials in towns that want to maintain the status quo.

'All Roads Lead to Paramus'

As for himself, Mayor Gennarelli owns a store in the Willowbrook Mall, in neighboring Passaic County, and is open for business on Sunday. He also owns two Dunkin' Donuts franchises in Bergen County, but food establishments can remain open all week.

Still, Mr. Gennarelli insists that residents need a respite from the traffic they have to contend with six days a week. Each day, he said, about 285,000 cars pass through the intersection of Routes 4 and 17, making it the busiest crossroad in the state; on Saturdays, it can take 40 minutes to get across Paramus, which is only 6.7 miles wide, while on Sunday it can take 4 minutes.

''All roads lead to Paramus,'' he said. ''That's why everyone builds here. But people here need a day of rest, a day to spend time with their family, or reading a book or going to the park or doing nothing. The only day that can happen in this county is the one when the stores are closed.''

In truth, Paramus has the most restrictive blue laws in Bergen County. For example, residents cannot have contractors do work on their homes; some homeowners have even been prosecuted for violating the ordinance. When the state transportation department agreed to upgrade the interchange of Routes 4 and 17 two years ago, Paramus officials forbade the crews from working on Sundays, though the officials finally relented after being assured the work would be done ahead of schedule.

Last year, borough officials prohibited Toys ''R'' Us, whose headquarters are in Paramus, from running a computerized inventory system for its nationwide chain on Sundays because they said it violated the blue laws. Next year, Toys ''R'' Us plans to move its headquarters to Wayne, in Passaic County. Carol Fuller, a spokeswoman for Toys ''R'' Us, said the move was a way to consolidate its four offices around the state, although others close to the situation claimed it was because of the blue laws.

''Those fighting the Sunday closing laws say they are not asking for a countywide repeal,'' said Ms. Weinberg. ''They simply want those towns that want to opt out to have the ability to do so. A petition would first have to be circulated, and if enough signatures were obtained, a referendum would be held. If Paramus residents want to keep their blue laws, they can.''

Ms. Weinberg, whose district includes Teaneck, said Paramus had for too long been forcing its will on the rest of the county when it came to the issue of blue laws.

Traffic, but No Tax Benefits

She noted that officials in Paramus had made their own decision to open their highways to retail stores, and had been enjoying the property tax benefits ever since. Teaneck, which is less than a mile from Paramus on Route 4, has never shared in those tax benefits yet it has been forced to share in the traffic, Ms. Weinberg added, noting that towns like Teaneck want to revitalize their downtown areas and need to be able to compete with the malls.

''Paramus chose to put department stores every five feet,'' she said. ''For places like Teaneck and Rutherford, who are doing improvement districts, this would be a boon to them. It will help bring shoppers in.''

Mayor Gennarelli is not buying.

To his way of thinking, the large retailers in the malls have tried in vain to fight the blue laws and now they are taking the issue out of the hands of county residents and placing it in those of the politicians.

''What you've got here are politicians and big business showing their greedy fangs again,'' Mr. Gennarelli said, ''trying to suck the blood out of the people who live here.''

But Melanie Willoughby, president of the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association, says it is the downtown business districts, not the mall stores, who are behind this latest movement to roll back the blue laws.

Ms. Willoughby said that while all stores suffered during the latest economic downturn, the large retailers were better equipped to weather it.

''The big mall stores had their chance back in 1993, and they spent a lot of money, and they said enough is enough,'' she said.

Staying closed on Sundays can come at a steep cost. Jay Weingast, who has owned an Athlete's Foot store in Garden State Plaza for eight years, says the county's blue laws cost him from $200,000 to $300,000 a year.

''In the months of November and December and back-to-school time, we lose so much,'' Mr. Weingast said.

For a company like the Gap -- which also owns Banana Republic and Old Navy and had sales of $13.8 billion last year -- its annual losses from the blue laws represent a much smaller percentage.

Large retailers say they do enough business in Paramus to have stores there despite the blue laws.

''Because of its location, the choice was made to go ahead and open there, even though they're not open on Sunday,'' said Ann Dinkley, director of public relations for Borders, which has two of its bookstores in Bergen County.

Yet those who favor repealing the laws face an unlikely opponent: the owners of the large malls in Paramus, who don't want to be placed at a competitive disadvantage.

Allan Cooperman, a North Jersey developer and part owner of the Riverside Square Mall in Hackensack, said he was watching the latest debate unfold with great interest, though he said he did not want to involve himself for fear of antagonizing the opposition -- both mall owners and county residents.

''It's a very difficult political issue in this county,'' Mr. Cooperman said. ''We're just hoping it gets repealed, and we're encouraging the mayors of each town to do what they can.''

David Laband, who wrote ''Blue Laws: The History, Economics and Politics of Sunday-Closing Laws'' (Lexington Books, 1987), said such laws always had protectionist undertones, and were often found in places with a large number of mom-and-pop shops.

''Blue laws exist to protect certain categories of firms from economic competition,'' Mr. Laband said. ''By forcing the big chain stores to stay closed, the small mom-and-pop stores can stay closed one day without having to worry about competition from the big chain stores.''

Church Versus State

Underneath the competing commercial interests and talk of quality of life is a simmering debate on church versus state in American life. The Rev. Stephen Giordano, an outspoken supporter of Bergen County's blue laws, says Sunday should be protected as a day for family and a day for rest. Father Giordano, a pastor at the Reformed Church of America in Bergenfield and spokesman for the Bergen County Council of Churches, said that while he shied away from phrases like ''Sunday is for going to church'' or ''we need to maintain the Sabbath,'' he preferred saying things like, ''Life is hectic, and we need to reduce stress.''

''Some people, who are members of faith communities, see this issue through a religious lens,'' he said. ''But it's not a church issue, it's a quality-of-life issue.''

Civil libertarians do not buy that, however. Blue laws, first enacted in the Colonies in the 17th century, were imposed to enforce often religiously based puritanical morals.

The courts have largely disagreed with that interpretation. When the constitutionality of blue laws was put to the test in 1961, in the case of McGowan v. Maryland, the United States Supreme Court ruled that while blue laws might have originally had a religious purpose, they had become secularized and now simply provide a day of rest.

''People can come up with whatever justification they want now, and the courts buy it,'' said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. ''But I think it's a decision with blinders on, to say that this is not based in religion. It ignores why the laws were originally started.''

And Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said that if Paramus wanted to control traffic, it should do it through zoning or such limitations on travel as banning cars with fewer than two occupants on certain roads rather than controlling traffic through sabbatarian legislation.

''Imposing the practices of one particular religion on a community goes against the spirit of religious freedom,'' Ms. Jacobs said.

In the final analysis, however, even civil libertarians acknowledge that issue of blue laws is becoming increasingly moot. Most have gone the way of pedal pushers and black-and-white televisions. Aside from restrictions on liquor sales, which are not uncommon, the few blue laws that remain are in pockets around the country.

In Clark County, Nev., for instance, car dealers must close Sundays. And South Carolina stores are prohibited from selling anything but food, tobacco, hosiery, undergarments and light bulbs before 1:30 p.m. on Sunday.

But for Ms. Layton, the business manager of Cedar Lane, her only concern is Bergen County and how the laws are hurting her ability to drum up new business. As long as the blue laws remain on the books, she said, all the faux gaslights and antique-looking benches in the world will not revitalize downtowns throughout the county.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company