PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Jim Botvin, the owner of Colonial Toyota in Pawtucket, has
spent some Sundays at his dealership, but all he can do is give customers a
business card and a request: Come back on Monday.
"They say, 'Can't you just open the door and sell us a car?' I say, 'I can't.
I'm prohibited by law.' They think we're kidding," he said.
For Botvin and others who want to lift restrictions on how businesses operate
on Sundays, customers' reactions are proof that Rhode Island's lingering blue
laws are outdated. As a number of states roll back their restrictions on Sunday
commerce, Rhode Island lawmakers are considering bills that would lift the ban
on selling automobiles on Sunday and would extend the hours other retailers
could be open.
Rhode Island, bill proponents say, is behind its neighbors on removing Sunday
sales restrictions, and businesses are suffering.
Botvin said his Massachusetts competitors tell him they do at least 16% of
their weekly business on Sundays. Some even use the extra day as a marketing
tool, calling it "Rhode Island Day" in newspaper ads.
For Paul DeRoche, president of the Rhode Island Retailers Association and
vice president of government affairs for the Greater Providence Chamber of
Commerce, the frustration comes with watching the mall parking lots in places
like North Attleboro, Mass., fill up on Sundays.
"Right now in Rhode Island, retailers can only operate on Sunday from 12
o'clock to 6 o'clock, and that makes the retailers in Rhode Island very
noncompetitive," he said. "People want to shop when they want to shop."
That's probably true, agrees Rev. John Holt, president of the Rhode Island
State Council of Churches, but it's a development he finds rather sad.
Though Holt’s belief in the separation of church and state means he does not
oppose lifting restrictions on Sunday sales, he said, he's troubled by the trend
the changes suggest.
"I'm concerned about the fact that our society today doesn't rest," he said.
"We need more family time and maybe less shopping time and maybe less
Blue laws, which date from Colonial times and are often attributed to Puritan
sensibilities, once banned a wide variety of commercial and leisure activities
Many have been repealed or relaxed, but in many states some
Holt recalled Sundays from his own childhood. Stores
were closed and the day's agenda included church, a meal at home, visits from
relatives and, for his parents, an afternoon nap.
"Having a law won't promote that or not promote that," Holt said. But, he
said, "it's just another kind of indication of what we value."
Rep. Peter Kilmartin sponsored two bills this year to lift blue laws, which
are both being considered by lawmakers.
Kilmartin said he too was somewhat saddened by how Sunday has changed. But
the change is deeply rooted in how people live and work now, he said.
cases, both members of a couple work, he said. Sunday is one of the few times
they can get together to make a major purchase.
"The fact of the matter is you can't stop this right now," he said.
Even so, most of Rhode Island's new-car dealers are not convinced. Jack
Perkins, executive vice president of the Rhode Island Automobile Dealers
Association, said a survey of the trade group's membership found more than 75%
opposed lifting the Sunday auto-sales ban.
"They believe that they're open plenty of hours already," he said. "Opening
on Sunday will simply spread their current sales over seven days rather than the
six they're open."
Costs would go up, he said, and employees who value their free Sundays will
now have to work. Dealers wouldn't have to open on Sunday, but some dealers fear
that if they don’t, they'll lose out to the competition, Perkins said.
Those who support rolling back blue laws note that Rhode Island's small size
means it's not difficult to cross the state line into Connecticut or
Massachusetts to take advantage of more friendly Sunday sales laws.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Rhode Island is
one of nine states banning Sunday car sales. Texas prohibits selling motor
vehicles on a consecutive Saturday and Sunday, meaning dealers must take off one
Jeanne Mejeur, research manager for NCSL, said bans on Sunday liquor and car
sales seem to be the blue laws that last the longest, even as a number of states
have rolled them back.
Competition from across state lines was what helped persuade legislators to
lift Rhode Island's ban on Sunday liquor sales. Nearly a year ago, the state
began permitting liquor stores to open on Sundays, though many still decline to
do so. That move came just months after Massachusetts made the same move.
For Botvin, that makes the ban on car sales all the more bitter.
"You can buy a gun in Rhode Island, you can go to adult entertainment, you
can go to a gambling casino, you can buy liquor," he said. "You can buy a house,
but you can't buy a car."