Friday, February 13, 2009

My Favorite Liquor Store Is Closing, One Week From Today.

My favorite liquor store is closing, one week from today.

It isn’t going out of business. It lost its lease.

(Funny term, that. Was the lease misplaced? Did it fly out the window of a moving car?)

The store is closing at its present location and does not have a new one, so after next Friday, who knows what will happen?

The closing won’t affect me much, because I seldom get to shop at my favorite liquor store, it being 800 miles from here.

My favorite liquor store, closing on Friday, February 20, is LeNell’s. It has served the Red Hook section of Brooklyn for the last six years.

Red Hook is one of the oldest sections of Brooklyn, the New York City borough at the tip of Long Island across the East River from Manhattan. The Dutch were there first and named the place "Roode Hoek" in 1636. By the 1850s it was one of the busiest ports in America. Long a bare-knuckled neighborhood of docks, dockworkers and dockworker bars (think Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront"), it gave us Al Capone and gave him the wound that earned him his nickname: "Scarface."

LeNell’s is my favorite liquor store because of its proprietor and namesake, Tonya LeNell Smothers. LeNell is one of those people for whom the expression "force of nature" was coined. She is relentlessly active and unfailingly cheerful, but in the languid manner of her Alabama youth. Her store feels like and is a spontaneous extension of her personality: friendly, idiosyncratic, personal, funny, cozy, and welcoming. She emphasizes the wares of small, family-owned producers. And she has a thing for American whiskey.

The store is one large room. Merchandise is displayed in old bookcases, wardrobes, barrels, and wash tubs. It almost always is LeNell herself working the register and helping the customers. When she isn’t at the store, she is often in one of the neighborhood bars, extolling the virtues of American whiskey, as both straight drink and cocktail ingredient, even though bars are prohibited from buying at stores. The business benefit is indirect, occurring only when the bar’s customers need a retail source. Mostly she does it because talking about drinks, drinking and drinkers is something she loves to do.

LeNell’s is a small store with a big reputation. It was recently named, for the third consecutive year, the best non-chain whiskey retailer in the USA by WHISKY Magazine.

LeNell is actively looking for a new home for her store. In the meantime, she is finishing a book, going to Europe, and doing some bartending (her vocation in the 1980s).

I predict, without joy, that LeNell will become the toast of Europe, like Josephine Baker in the 20s, and never return. She will do something great, that’s for sure, and I can’t wait to see what it is.

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