Behind Bergen County’s Blue Laws

By Erin Delmore

At Garden State Plaza, an average of 60,000 people shop every day. That’s 19 million visitors a year. Paramus alone rakes in more than $5 billion in yearly retail sales, making Bergen County one of the wealthiest in the state, and that’s with its stores shut on Sundays.

So-called “Blue Laws,” named for the color paper they used to be written on, have been on the books in New Jersey since the late 1600s. In the mid-20th century a majority of states had similar laws. They hit their peak in Jersey in the mid-1960s, but have since been repealed — except in Bergen County.

“As far as we know, Bergen County’s the only jurisdiction in the country that has such a broad prohibition on sales. Of course, everyone’s familiar with blue laws on alcohol or car sales, but as far as we can tell, the only place in the entire country that has a prohibition on clothing and electronics is Bergen County,” said John Holub from the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association.

To understand why Bergen residents have held fast to their Sunday retail ban, look back to the 1950s when planned suburbs and mega-malls started sprouting and stealing business from Main Street. Mom and pop retailers sided with religious-minded residents to push for Blue Laws so they could have a day off without paying for Sunday staff.

When the state legislature put it to a vote more than half the counties opted in. Today, only Bergen remains and it’s been more than two decades since residents voted. Mitch Horn wants to put a referendum back on the ballot.

“I was almost always in need of something from Babies ‘R Us or Target, so I ran into that instance a bunch of times where my wife and I really needed a baby item and we weren’t able to get it on such short notice without taking a really long drive,” he said. “Unfortunately, I spent a lot of time trekking back and forth to either Secaucus or Morris County, or up to New York.”

To move forward, Horn needs to submit a petition with 55,000 handwritten signatures. That reflects a tenth of Bergen’s registered voters. His Facebook group, Modernize Bergen County, gathered 3,000 and is hoping to fundraise $20,000 to hire a firm to get the rest. However, a quick tour around the Paramus Park Mall shows it could be slow going.

“I actually enjoy the blue laws. I enjoy shopping too, but I can always go elsewhere to get my shopping done, and then I have the roads free to travel,” said 16-year-old Teaneck resident Janet Allen.

“Especially Route 4 and Route 17, a nightmare every day, this is the only day where if you want to go to the city or something, it’s not so condensed, not that much traffic,” said Paramus resident Mia Kleinstein.

“I think it’s insane. Pretty much every other country has the option to shop on Sundays and I think that should pretty much be extended for Bergen County as well,” said Murali Vasudevan from Mahwah.

“I think in this consumer-driven world, we can all use a break from shopping all the time,” said Mike Jaffe from Mahwah. “I think it’s great. I think we should have it for two days a week.”

But is a forced break sustainable for brick and mortar stores and harried shoppers?

“Peoples’ lives are more hectic now than ever. Online shopping amazon at 4 a.m. — how do you compete with that if you’re losing a day a week?” asked New Jersey Business and Industry Association President and CEO Michele Siekerka.

“This is really about a quality of life issue. People want to have a day where they can travel across the county, be able to do things, visit family members, have children play, without having the congestion and the traffic that we face six days a week,” said Bergen County Executive Jim Tedesco.

Tedesco is the former Mayor of Paramus. In the mid-90s his town voted to keep the Blue Laws, 13-1.

“Right now it’s one or two municipalities holding the rest of the county hostage, and we think that needs to be rectified,” Holub said.

The New Jersey Retail Merchant Association tells us it’s planning to propose a legislative fix. That could be a measure to let each municipality determine its own fate, or a full-out repeal.