Photos: The Liquor Stores Of America

In 'The Liquor Store Series: An American Dream,' a photographer drove through 38 states taking pictures of liquor stores and talking to the people he encountered along the way.

Photographer Marc Gruninger grew up in Switzerland, but moved to California in 2005. He first landed in San Diego, then moved to L.A. where he lived for seven years. In March 2013, right before taking "a hiatus" from the city, he came up with the idea of documenting the liquor stores of America.

Gruninger has shot for a San Diego music label, artists and actors and has worked in set photography and covering live events. Gruninger said what intrigued him about the American liquor store not only by the way they looked, but "the diversity of people that would go there, whether it was for the occasion of celebrating or drowning their sorrows in alcohol." The young, the old, and people from all backgrounds visited liquor stores, he observed. And liquor stores were everywhere.

"Even in the smallest, most remote towns with barely anything existing, you would find two things: churches and liquor stores," he said. "It seems like a contrast at first, but when you think about it, they are a complementary in many ways. Where there's a lot of despair, people are drawn to hope and faith. But at the same time, they also want to take the other route and want to escape the despair by intoxicating their spirit. I personally think either one of them can—but don't have to—keep one from exploring their true potential in life."

Compared to the architecture that Gruninger enjoyed in Europe, he found American churches lackluster. "Liquor stores, on the other hand, have this grit and rawness about them in a similar way like old, rundown motels do."

Gruninger drove through 38 states in 100 days. He didn't plan his route by liquor store, rather deciding on which ones he would investigate as he drove by. When driving in areas with multiple stores, he would pick the one that seemed the most unique.

Gruninger calls his series 'An American Dream' because he believes that people have been conditioned to believe that success lies in fame and fortune. But, he says, "there are still people who define the dream by owning their own small business or even just holding a job there. I met so many immigrants on the road from all over the world who said that their very first working experience in [the U.S.] was at a local liquor store. So, there's that aspect of it, but also that there are a lot of broken dreams one can observe in a liquor store. Alcoholism and the ongoing subliminal support of corporations by keeping it going—the more consumption, the more profit."

He said he noticed that small towns treated liquor stores communally, finding that people would head there to socialize. He met a former Miss America, and one guy who said he was the devil and another who claimed to be the second coming of Christ. "A good mix of people, you may say," Gruninger said.

"I also noticed that half of the store owners take pride in owning a liquor store, and the other half come across rather miserable," he said. "One guy in Sedona had the most neatly arranged interior and put so much love into his selection of liquor. He showed me all of his special editions of tequila that were bottled in glass skulls and machine guns. But there was also an angry woman in Louisville who started yelling at me and threatened to call the cops...when I mentioned that I would like to snap a photo of the store."

He also mentioned meeting a clerk at North Hollywood' Circus Liquor. The clerk had worked there for seven years and said he still loved his job. 'I tell people whatever you do in life, do it with passion. It's a way life,' Gruninger recalled the clerk saying.

One of his favorites was in Yucca Valley, next to a "giant Joshua Tree." In his blog, he said he was asked not to take photos and no one wanted to talk to him, but he felt like the store gave him a feel for the entire region.
He found a glittery store in Hawthorne, NV. "[The store] feels like the one building alive amidst eerie nothingness," he said.

But his favorite store is the one he shot on his way back to the West Coast, he said.

"I spotted it in San Pedro, and I remember myself thinking: Wow, this very liquor store pretty much sums up the entire project." The store (pictured in the gallery) is next to a banner proclaiming that Jesus is the reason for the holiday season.

Gruninger is currently living in Berlin and working on a project about the sister cities of L.A. and Berlin, consisting of "various impressions about two, great major cities." He is also continuing a portrait series two years in the making called ESSENCE that documents activities and "people of inspiration." See the complete liquor store series here.