(ABOVE: Because of New Jersey's outmoded laws, Hoboken has a bar one every block while many suburban towns have almost no places to drink.)
I was driving past a strip mall in Brick Township that is now half-empty because a supermarket closed. My goal was another strip mall in Toms River that is now half-empty, also because a supermarket closed.
On the way I passed a dozen or so strip malls that had "vacancy" signs in their windows.
When I got to my destination, I saw an empty storefront with the outline of the name "Pathmark" still visible where the letters had been taken down a year or so ago. There were plenty of other vacant stores as well, all with signs begging some business owner to choose them over the hundreds of similar vacant locations nearby.
The reason for my trip was a conversation I had in the Statehouse last week with George Jacobs, who is a real-estate developer with commercial interests all over the state.
Jacobs told me the situation at that mall in Toms River is being replicated all over as storefront operations lose market share to the big online retailers like Amazon.
"Retail is struggling. The clothing industry is struggling. Toys R Us just filed bankruptcy. Babies R Us is closing," Jacobs told me. "I have not done a new clothing store lease in a few years."
Clothing sales have been particularly hard-hit by online competition, he said. There's not much clothing in a mall that can't be bought online.
Amazon's even moving into grocery delivery, further targeting the overcrowded supermarket sector.
However there is one thing Amazon can't deliver: A cold draft beer or a nice glass of wine in a congenial location.
The reason Jacobs had come to Trenton was to testify before a state Assembly committee that was taking comments on proposed changes to the state's antiquated and thoroughly obsolete liquor-license system.
In states like Vermont, anyone who wants to start a restaurant can get a liquor license for a fee of a few hundred dollars a year.
Here in New Jersey, the price of a license can be as high as a million bucks. That's because way back in 1947 the liquor industry convinced their wholly-owned subsidiary, the Legislature, to pass a law capping the number of new licenses that can be issued.
That meant the existing licenses were no longer licenses, but franchises that guaranteed entry into a monopoly. But now New Jersey is in no position to keep that monopoly in business, said Jacobs. The lack of liquor licenses is hampering economic growth not only in malls but in many downtown areas.
"The inability to get licenses is crippling us and crippling shopping centers," Jacobs told the committee members.
Restaurants are notoriously difficult to operate because of their low profit margins, Jacobs said. The state is making that even more difficult by preventing them from selling beer and wine.
"You're taking away 50 percent of possible sales right out of the box," he said.
Jacobs said he would like to see the legislators level the playing field by passing a bill such as A1505. This bill would permit restaurants to sell beer and wine, but only to those dining at tables. Restaurants would not be allowed to serve patrons at bars.
This commonsense reform seemed to bother the legislators. Several asked questions about what effect this would have on current license-holders. Another asked Jacobs if he thought every restaurant should be permitted to get a license.
"From my perspective, I wouldn't mind that in the least," he replied. "Go to New York City and there's a restaurant with a license every five feet."
Meanwhile you can go to many downtowns in Jersey and you'll be lucky to find any place at all to get a drink. Because of the astronomical cost, the licenses tend to be bought up by giant restaurants chains that locate them out on the highways - where you have to drive to get to them.
I've attended similar hearings, and I've yet to hear a legislator defend the system on its virtues, whatever they may be. Instead I hear question after question about what effect changing the law would have on current license-holders.
Who cares? The liquor lobby is like that guy who shot his parents and then pleaded with the judge to give him mercy because he was an orphan.
They worked for decades to set up a monopoly. Now they argue that the monopoly can never be reformed because it might hurt their financial interests.
But our legislators are supposed to work for the public interest, not private interests.
It's time they told the liquor lobby the party's over.
Unfortunately they seem more worried about who's bringing the gifts.
PLUS - The BYOB issue: Because of the monopoly on licenses, an entire tradition of BYOB has arisen among restaurants.
A lot of people like BYOB's because they're cheaper. Being a cheapskate, I'm among them.
But the fact is that it's extremely difficult for a restaurant to make a profit on food alone. I've had several friends who tried and none succeeded. Unless you're doing something cheap like takeout food, the expense of running a full restaurant is often more than the traffic can bear.
If these new licenses were created there would be a lot more restaurants opening up. And as in New York, they would no longer be able to impose the outrageous markups you see in current restaurants with liquor licenses.
The competition would drive the prices down.
By the way, here's a copy of the state regulations on BYOBs. Interestingly enough, they include a ban on restaurants advertising that they are BYOB.
I have no idea why the state officials thought we needed such a ban. But the good news is that it was thrown out by a court recently after an Atlantic City go-go bar challenged it.