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Liquor store marks its 70th year

 
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Staff Writer

December 31, 2003

As the year comes to an end, so passes an important milestone for one of Greenwich's oldest stores.

This year marked the 70th anniversary of Cos Cob Liquor Store, the oldest liquor store in Greenwich and one of the few still standing that opened just as Prohibition was repealed in December 1933.

At the time, Frank and Pauline Schmidel had just opened a delicatessen on the Post Road in the center of Cos Cob. With the repeal, the pair saw opportunity and turned their deli into a liquor store.

Today, the adult beverage retailer is in the hands of George Smith, who purchased Cos Cob Liquor in 1981. His is the second family to own Cos Cob Liquor. And the store will remain in the Smith family for at least another generation as Smith's 25-year son, George Smith Jr., has come on board with the intention of eventually taking over the reins.

It was a tough start, said Smith, 56, who, with his wife, Maureen, struggled to build their newly acquired business back in the early 1980s. Soon after buying the package store, the Mianus River Bridge collapsed, a devastating blow to Cos Cob- area retailers. Then, in December 1984, just as the pair was gearing up for what they hoped would be a profitable Christmas, a fire ravaged the entire Food Mart shopping complex, including the liquor store.

George Smith took a job at the Cos Cob's Center Hardware Store to pay the bills as the Food Mart complex was being rebuilt. Despite knowing that their fire losses far exceeded the original investment, the Smiths decided to persevere and give the store another go, George Smith said.

"We were devastated for a while," said Maureen Smith, who continues to work in the store during the busy holiday season.

It was the customers that kept the couple's spirit up. Like many mom-and-pop stores at the time, Cos Cob Liquor gave many customers house charge accounts. But all the paperwork had been lost in the fire, George Smith said.

Smith said he got phone calls from customers saying, "We know our bills burnt down, but we want to pay you," he said.

Not knowing how much they actually owed, people just started sending cash, Smith said. "That's how nice people are."

Two years after the fire, Cos Cob Liquor reopened and the Smiths began to rebuild the business. It was a two-person show for a while, Maureen Smith said, recalling how she and her husband would feed their two children dinner at the store, help them with their homework and then stock the shelves until midnight.

Business began to take off when Smith started discounting products.

"We started growing and we have been growing ever since," Smith said.

Being part of the Food Mart shopping complex helped a great deal because people shopped for groceries and then came in to pick up a bottle of wine for dinner. As customer traffic increased, Smith decided to turn Cos Cob Liquor into a deep discount store.

"We have more than 200 items at the state's minimum price," he said.

And on a busy Saturday, 200 to 250 customers walk through the store's doors, said store manager Tom Prackup.

Wine also has transformed the business, Smith said. Today, about 70 percent of sales come from wine. The store carries wines from all over the world, with a strong emphasis on California.

The Smiths are now bracing for another change, which started with the state Legislature passing a law this summer allowing package stores to stay open until 9 p.m., an hour later than permitted for the past four decades.

The change has sparked debate over whether to allow alcohol sales on Sunday. Neither the extended hours nor Sunday sales are something Smith supports.

"I don't like having people work on Sundays," Smith said. And to be open seven days a week means hiring another person, he added.

"You almost have to do it because of competition," Smith said. "We already discussed making it work. We are kind of sure it will happen."

The Smiths are not alone in their distaste for the possible change.

"Most of our members are against Sunday sales. We feel we will lose sales to grocery stores," said Stephen Downes, president of the Connecticut Package Store Association.

Most package stores are smaller operations and being opened seven days will be a hardship for many store owners, Downes said. Most owners will be forced to hire extra help and will have to be there seven versus six days.

Thursday, Friday and Saturday are big selling days, Downes said. "If stores are open on Sunday, it won't make much of a difference."

The Smith family is preparing to embrace some changes. The younger Smith, who has an Internet marketing background, wants to computerize the store and inventory.

He's already revamped the store's Web site and 10 percent of the store's Christmas sales came from Internet purchases this year, George Smith Jr. said.

The store received Internet orders from as far away as Malaysia, with people sending bottles of wine and other liquors to clients, family and friends in the area, he said.

So what does an old-school dad think about his son's plans to take the 70-year business into the 21st century?

"It is quite exciting," Smith said.

But as the younger Smith prepares to take over the business, the elder Smith isn't ready to completely let go of the store he literally built from the ground up.

"I am starting to slow down," he said. "But I will always probably have my nose in it."

Copyright 2004, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.


 
 
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