Most tourist destinations ‘ think Disney World or the Statue of Liberty ‘ announce themselves dramatically.
Not so for the Park Avenue Liquor Shop in New York City. First of all, it’s not even on Park Avenue (and hasn’t been since 1974). Located on Madison Avenue, in bustling midtown Manhattan, just three blocks from Grand Central Terminal, it appears to be just a tiny, ordinary storefront, only 2,200 square feet in size.
Yet a significant community of like-minded souls, from around the world, seek it out, sort of like the magical families of the Harry Potter books finding the shops of Diagon Alley in London.
‘They come and take pictures of our window display and our whisky wall,’ said Jonathan Goldstein, senior vice president and third-generation Goldstein. ‘They ask to see our basement.’
For there is more to Park Avenue Liquor Shop ‘ much more ‘ than meets the eye. Its climate-controlled basement storage, three to four times the size of the store itself, is packed with old, rare, collectible wines. ‘I just brought a couple, from Hong Kong, down there for a tour,’ said Jonathan. ‘It’s kind of tricky because it’s so tight, but people really want to see it.’
There are two additional climate-controlled storage rooms, hidden away in another building around the corner, which are also filled with wines and spirits, as well as Park Avenue Liquor’s space at WineCare Storage, a facility across town.
Park Avenue is no ordinary liquor store. It is known around the world as the place to go for the old and the rare in both wines and spirits. It has 450 red Bordeaux and 530 red Burgundies, over 350 single malt Scotches, ranging in price from $20.50 for Speyburn Braden Orach to $20,000 for the Ardbeg Double Barrel 1974 Two Bottle Package, as well as 102 Armagnacs, the oldest dating back to 1890. And the selection goes on and on.
Are all these products on display? ‘Absolutely not,’ said Eric Goldstein, Jonathan’s younger brother and the store’s vice president of marketing, ‘though we display as much as is humanly possible; we use every nook and cranny of our 2,200 square feet.’
The store’s famous ‘Wall,’ which whisky tourists take photos of, is located behind the counter and actually contains only about 60 to 65% of the store’s single malt collection.
‘We had to spread it to other parts of the store,’ said Eric. ‘The store is almost a living, breathing thing. We try to keep distillers together, but since we get new things in every week, it’s kind of a futile task.’
But, he continued, ‘Everyone here knows where everything is and we make a point of telling customers we are happy to give them a tour. Then, we give them The List.’ The List is, well, a list of all of the store’s single malts, arranged by region. ‘We also tell them we are happy to show them anything. We have copies of our catalog available and we have four computers in the store to look things up for them,’ said Eric.
Park Avenue’s computer system runs on Macs ‘ ‘A lot of people are surprised at that,’ said Eric ‘ and the store built its own customized system of product, customer and business information using FileMaker.
Among the millions of dollars in business Park Avenue Liquor Shop does each year, more than half of it is by phone and internet. ‘Being online has changed everything,’ said Jonathan. ‘Having a customer around the corner is great. Having customers calling in from places like Hong Kong is even greater.
A Brief History
Park Avenue Liquor Store has been in existence since the end of Prohibition, opening in 1934. For decades, it was just an ordinary neighborhood liquor store, even after it was bought by Herman Goldstein, Jonathan’s grandfather, in 1955. Before he became a retailer, Herman Goldstein had been the owner of a window display company specializing in wine and spirits.
When Herman Goldstein died in 1965, the operation was taken over by his son (and father of Eric and Jonathan), Michael Goldstein. It was Michael who decided to specialize in high-end wines. ‘My dad had a very good mentor,’ said Jonathan. Victor Puppin, a family friend and the sommelier at a restaurant called Brussels, advised Michael, ‘If you’re going to sell wine, you might as well sell the best wine.’ Puppin steered his well-heeled restaurant clientele to the little shop.
There, they found Michael, who proved to be a quick study when it came to fine wines. Within a few years, he was routinely sought out to appraise private wine collections and as an expert interview by wine writers from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Puppin’s clientele also found Michael to be a very personable wine expert. ‘I like people,’ said Michael. ‘I like talking to them and I like selling them wines they’ll enjoy. I really enjoy what I am doing.’
In the 1980s, Park Avenue’s spirits buyer, Herb Lapchin, became interested in single malt Scotch. ‘He was moving other spirits aside, so he could make more room for single malts,’ remembered Jonathan. ‘We thought he was crazy.’ Jonathan, who began working at the store in 1995, became Lapchin’s assistant and then took over the spirits buying when Lapchin retired.
Park Avenue Liquor Shop is known for the longevity of its staff. Many of its employees have been with the store for 15 years or longer. ‘We don’t have much turnover,’ said Scott Abramson, senior vice president and junior partner. Abramson should know. He’s been with the store since 1981, when he started as a holiday season employee. Once he graduated from Baruch University with a B.A. in finance in 1985, he joined the store full-time. Abramson, who has been the store’s principal wine buyer since 1990, is well-known in the industry. He sits on several wine tasting panels and consults with restaurants about their wine lists.
Jonathan Goldstein, with the store since 1995, handles the spirits side, especially the whiskies and the store’s exclusive products. Jonathan was invited to become a ‘Keeper of the Quaich,’ a member of an exclusive, international society founded by Scotch distillers.
‘The whole spirits category is incredible,’ Jonathan said. ‘It’s a fun category. When we went headlong into single malts, we didn’t know rye whiskey was going to be so big, and now, in the last year or so, we’ve been getting into moonshine or white dog whiskey.’
Jonathan also handles the store’s ‘exclusive’ bottlings. These are products produced when the store buys an entire cask of a spirit. That particular spirit is available nowhere else.
‘We meet with the distillers and importers to see what they have and we taste cask samples,’ explained Jonathan. ‘We ask ourselves, first of all, do we like it, and also will the pricing, the size, the proof work in our shop.’ He explains that he likes to choose things that are out of the ordinary. ‘We don’t just do a 12-year-old Macallan,’ he said. ‘We might do a 15-year-old that’s been aged in rum casks.’
Casks can range in size from 100 bottles to 600. And the exclusives Park Avenue has had range in price from $45 to $300 per bottle. ‘It usually takes about one to three years to sell out,’ said Eric, ‘and we generally have about a dozen exclusives in the store at a time.’
Most recently, Park Avenue has been broadening the scope of its exclusives beyond whisky. ‘We’ve been moving in calvados, tequila, mezcal and cognac,’ said Jonathan.
One recent addition to Park Avenue’s exclusives is ‘Casa Noble Single Barrel Extra Anejo Tequila Aged 7 Years.’ This cask is one of three produced by Casa Noble that had been known as ‘the friends and family barrels,’ because those were the only people who got to taste them. Park Avenue’s barrel produced 300 bottles, which are priced at $100 each.
Jonathan, Michael and Scott were joined by Eric, Jonathan’s younger brother, in 2007. ‘I was an executive vice president, group creative director at [the advertising agency] McCann Erickson,’ said Eric. ‘I wrote television commercials, basically.’
But Eric, who is a father of two, felt he was traveling too much. ‘Working at the store always hovered around my life like a satellite,’ he said. ‘I spoke to my father and my brother and, lucky for me, they took me in.’
Store As a Brand
And Eric, now the store’s vice president of marketing, went to work on the store’s ‘brand.’ He is doing so at a time when the concepts of advertising and marketing are changing for a retailer such as Park Avenue. The store still does some traditional advertising. For example, it advertises its annual sale, held in August, in New York City newspapers. However, Eric has focused his efforts on the internet. He has upgraded the store’s website (www.parkaveliquor.com) and has perfected the store’s email blasts. ‘The newspaper gets thrown out the next day,’ said Eric. ‘There’s so much more value to social media and email.’
There is a certain art to emailing customers. ‘I only send an email if we really have something exciting to tell. People don’t like getting an email a day from a retailer. It just becomes white noise,’ Eric explained. ‘We might do a blast once or twice a month. I want people to be excited rather than annoyed when they see an email from us.’
Many of the store’s sales are conducted entirely over the internet, starting sometimes with a customer finding Park Avenue Liquor Shop via an internet search engine such as wine-searcher.com (where, incidentally, Park Avenue has the highest possible rating a merchant can get, five stars). Still, the Goldsteins all strive to establish a more personal relationship. ‘We really cherish the customer bond,’ said Eric. ‘We do a lot of personal emails and phone calls to customers, to tell them, for instance, that we just got in six bottles of a wine we think that particular customer might be interested in.’
The store also makes announcements on Facebook. ‘People expect you to post on Facebook, so they’re not offended when they see you doing it,’ Eric said. ‘And you can have fun with Facebook and show some personality.’
Also, he points out, a store’s internet-based presentation of itself, on Twitter, on Facebook and on its own website, is always there for the customer to access. ‘Your web presence is like a little satellite of your store online and people can follow up with you at any time,’ he said.
However, because of the desire for a personal connection with customers, the store does not have a voice-mail system. ‘With another store, you might press one for this and two for that,’ said Eric. ‘We just answer the phone. We keep it at a personal level.’
Other liquor and wine retailers in New York routinely refer customers to Park Avenue when those customers are looking for something hard to get. And while the long-ago decision to specialize in the rare and the high-end has been an excellent one ‘ ‘You’re not going to make it in Manhattan just selling everyday products,’ said Jonathan ‘ the store and its staff are as happy to assist someone with an ‘ordinary’ purchase. Because of that, Park Avenue is also known as a good place to get a gift for someone who is interested in fine wines and spirits, even if you yourself don’t know anything about the subject. ‘Our whisky selection, for example, ranges in price from $20 to $20,000,’ said Jonathan, ‘but we find the magic number for a gift is $100.’
Wine and spirits, the everyday and the rare, the oldest and the latest: ‘It’s a juggling act,’ said Jonathan, ‘and that makes it a fun challenge.’