Monday, February 23, 2009

Your mad parade

After a harrowing series of landlord conflicts (and floods, and gas outages) LeNell Smothers has lost her lease and closed her nouveau-bordello styled liquor shop in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The place has never been my sort of drink, but I’ll miss it anyway.

Her shop was driven by the engine of her personality. She’s abrasive and foul mouthed, showily oversexed and energetic. She invented a character for herself and she plays it to the hilt. In the shop, this was evidenced by eccentric touches such as displaying her gin selection in an old clawfoot tub. It wasn’t all titivation. She managed to get Buffalo Trace to send her so many bottles of George T. Stagg that there were three left in the shop when it closed. But there is -- was -- something off, something wrong about the place, and I’d never been able to nail it down. Last week, I came across this interview LeNell did with Lucy Baker. Baker asked LeNell if she thought the trend to posh speakeasies was gimmicky, and LeNell said:
Every bar is gimmicky. Everyone has some sort of shtick. I don't think it's a bad thing. Is it gimmicky to have a phone booth that you walk through? Of course it is. Is it gimmicky to have chandeliers hanging and a big fat wooden door? Of course it is. Is it gimmicky to have girls dancing on a bar? Of course it is.
This is breathtakingly cynical. Surely it’s true that New York is chock full of gimmick-first venues, but that doesn’t mean that “everyone has a schtick.” Lots of the best places (be they restaurants, bars, liquor stores, yarn shops) are organic reflections of the judgment and enthusiasm of the owner. Other places are branded manifestations of an invention of the owner. The former wins every time. Although, I suppose the liquor store I shop in (most often, anyway) has a gimmick: It’s huge, well stocked, and the prices are good.

This is not to say that I’m happy to see LeNell’s gone. She was, after all, the matchless queen of bourbon in New York City. Her selection was without equal. She somehow managed to glide past the rule that liquor stores in New York cannot sell things which are not liquor and carried a wide selection of excellent bitters. I grabbed a bottle of The Bitter Truth’s Lemon Bitters while I watched and eavesdropped as LeNell worked through the shop’s final hours.

It was an interesting scene. She did a photo shoot -- she got naked and lounged in her bathtub by the front door of the shop, covered in bottles of gin -- but most of the day was spent receiving teary eyed customers who brought her a strange assortment of gifts (chocolates, xeroxes of vintage Gourmet Magazine issues) and plucked the bones of her shop clean. She even sold a bottle of Bols Genever from the photo shoot.
“This one was covering my right breast,” she announced.

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