W. German shop hours: open and shut case

There are two sacred cows that any politician here challenges at his peril. The first is the no-speed-limit Autobahn. The second, the compulsory 6:30 closing time for stores.

The decreed shop-shutting time is even more sacrosanct than the unde-creed velocity of those Mercedes. Once every five years or so some brave soul suggests the accident rate might go down if speed limits went down.

But only once a decade does someone seriously suggest it might be more convenient for Liesl Muller to be able to buy a loaf of bread at 6:31 p.m.

That time has come around again.

Heiner Geissler, the sometime hatchet man of the Christian Democrats, now minister of youth, family, and health, recently ventured:

''I find it simply odd that the 'sovereign consumer' can choose freely between millions of goods, but in the question of his times of shopping, a time-dictate rules him.''

The bricks started flying immediately. Letting stores open at any hour of the day or night would put mom-and-pop stores out of business, some said. It would be inhumane to workers who should be home with their families in the evening, said others.

None of the critics found it unusual that the state should decide when all shops shall open or close their doors.

Geissler will never win this one. His government may have a majority in Parliament. His party may applaud when he calls the Social Democrats a fifth column for Moscow - and it may be only a court suit or threat of a court suit by the Social Democrats that will bring him to apologize, sort of.

But his party will never stick its collective neck out on this one. Too many votes are at stake, even if the next election is a year off.

And the next time. . . .

Oops, sorry, gotta run. It's 6:28 and I just remembered I don't have a drop of milk in the house.

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