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Prohibition-Era Liquor Store Near Yankee Stadium Closes Doors

By Patrick Wall | March 20, 2012 1:17pm
After more than 75 years in business, Stadium Wines and Liquor is set to close by the end of March.
After more than 75 years in business, Stadium Wines and Liquor is set to close by the end of March.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

CONCOURSE — It sold its first bottle of liquor in 1934, one year after the end of Prohibition, in the depths of the Great Depression, in the shadow of Yankee Stadium.

It continued to sell spirits from its narrow perch in the Bronx when the neighborhood bustled, then went down in flames during the arson-filled 1970s, and was later rebuilt.

But at the end of this month, after more than 75 years in business, Stadium Wines and Liquor will shut its doors, a victim of raised rents and sluggish sales that the owner, like other nearby merchants, said were at least partly caused by the construction of the new Yankee Stadium.

"The store had been here for 70 years," Manuel Mercedes, the store’s fourth and current owner, recently recalled thinking in 2006 when construction on the new stadium began. "I couldn’t think why it wouldn’t stay here."

Mercedes, whose mother brought him to the Bronx from the Dominican Republic when he was 11, bought the store at 54 E. 161st St. in 1996, on his 55th birthday.

After running a private accounting firm for two decades, Mercedes, 70, had hoped to settle into the liquor business as a sort of "working retirement," an investment he could live off of with minimal effort.

Instead, he said he worked 90-hour weeks during his first 12 years in the shop. His 14-year-old son, Manuel Jr., began to stop by each afternoon after high school to do homework and help stock the shelves. Manuel Jr., now 28, still works at the store.

During those years, the store’s annual revenues climbed from $800,000 in 1996 to $1.5 million a decade later, Mercedes said. So when his lease came up for renewal in 2006 and his landlord, Friedland Properties, decided to increase the rent from about $6,700 a month to $10,400, Mercedes decided the store was worth it.

But six years later, the shop’s yearly revenues have plummeted back to about $800,000, while rent has jumped to about $11,100 per month, according to Mercedes.

He, along with several other merchants on East 161st Street, acknowledge that the recession took a big bite out of business. But they say the deepest dent in their bottom lines came in 2009, when the new Yankee Stadium opened.

Manuel Mercedes, who bought the liquor store in 1996, is its fourth and final owner.
Manuel Mercedes, who bought the liquor store in 1996, is its fourth and final owner.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

"It killed business here," said Joe Bastone, owner of the Yankee Tavern, which opened in 1923 and has served the likes of Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio.

"The first day the stadium opened my food business was down 75 percent," Bastone said, adding that sales have since inched up, but not to their pre-move levels, and only after he lowered prices.

The merchants cite several problems with the new stadium.

In the past, thousands of fans parked in garages many blocks from the stadium and walked down 161st Street to games, stopping at local stores along the way. Now, a Metro-North station that opened in 2009 and new stadium-adjacent parking garages funnel fans directly to the foot of the ballpark.

Once inside the stadium, visitors can choose from 444 souvenir shops, eateries and concession stands — nearly 50 percent more options than in the old stadium. From hot dogs to Cuban sandwiches and sushi, and from pennants to pinstriped jerseys, Yankees fans can find it all without setting foot outside the stadium.

"Now it’s like a mall inside," said Rashed Salahi, an employee at Stadium Souvenirs at the corner of 161st St. and River Ave.

"You don’t see too many people in the street," Salahi added, "They go straight into the stadium."

Salahi said the decreased foot traffic has meant fewer customers and, for him, fewer hours. To make up for the losses, Salahi said, the store now stays open year-round, rather than just during baseball season.

Soon after the new stadium was completed, the City Council approved a rezoning plan meant to spur development in the area around 161st Street that would, among other changes, allow towers up to 30 stories tall to be built by the ballpark.

The rezoning, combined with the new stadium, convinced some landlords that the local real estate was newly valuable and could fetch higher rents, according to merchants such as Chris Katsihtis.

"The landlords in this neighborhood think it’s Park Avenue in Manhattan — it’s not," said Katsihtis, who helps run his family’s two restaurants on 161st Street, Court Deli and Crown Donuts Diner.

But others in the local business community say it is the responsibility of merchants to evolve with the neighborhood.

Cary Goodman, head of the 161st Street Business Improvement District, said that storeowners should expect rents to increase since old leases were written when the area was still "depressed."

"Now that the area is moving forward," Goodman said, higher rents and prices "are sort of the new reality."

John Michialis, general manager of Billy’s Sports Bar and Restaurant, said his family fully renovated the space in 2009 in order to stay competitive when the stadium opened.

"You got to keep up with the times," said Michialis. "It’s not the old neighborhood anymore — it’s a different neighborhood."

For many, it will be a neighborhood without their favorite liquor store and hangout spot.

Mercedes said that during baseball seasons, regulars reappear from such far-flung places as Manhattan and Boston. Year round, certain customers still remember the store’s original owner, Adolph Halperin, who ran the business into his 80s.

At 3 p.m. on a recent afternoon, like clockwork, Bernard Ortiz stepped through the door with his dog, Baby, to buy a bottle and read the newspaper at the counter.

Meanwhile, Mercedes listened to Jose Rivera, an 86-year-old World War II veteran, tell about the time he bumped into Joe Louis on 161st Street.

Later, Rivera said he would miss the liquor store, where he has shopped for decades.

"This store was good," he said. "It was like you could bottle time."

A view of the storefront on East 161st Street in 1971.
A view of the storefront on East 161st Street in 1971.
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Bronx County Historical Society