One of the original founders of Schneider’s of Capitol Hill is still with us. Abe Genderson, who opened the iconic liquor store in 1949 with his father-in-law Max Schneider, celebrated his 100th birthday in June. Abe’s wife, Charlotte Genderson, is also still alive. Almost every branch of the family tree has ties to the small shop that keeps a 20,000-square-foot warehouse in Ivy City.
“She and my grandfather ran the store forever,” says Schneider’s Vice President Elyse Genderson. “She did it in heels with a lot of grace. The store was a true liquor store—they were selling pints of bourbon and cases of beer. It was very different 70 years ago. Since then, my father and uncle really built it into a world-renowned fine wine retailer and importer through the ’80s, ’90s, and today.”
Elyse was working in the wine industry in New York and moved back to the D.C. area about three-and-a-half years ago when her father, Jon Genderson, began his battle with glioblastoma. Jon, who had been running Schneider’s with his brother Rick Genderson and nephew Josh Genderson, died on May 25.
Schneider’s is one of a handful of enduring D.C. liquor shops whose longtime owners are unofficial historians of how the industry has evolved over time. These operators have fought to keep pace with consumer trends, emerging technologies, and a wave of incoming “big box” retailers that now sell wine, beer, and in some cases, liquor.
Over time, Schneider’s, Calvert Woodley Fine Wines & Spirits, Paul’s Wine & Spirits, and Chat’s Liquors on Capitol Hill discovered ways to build a loyal following and become fixtures in their neighborhoods by specializing in next-level customer service.
“The Whole Foods coming in three blocks from here, we felt a dent,” Elyse says, referring to the H Street NE grocer, which opened in 2017. “You don’t blame people. There’s parking, they’re already getting their food, and the wine section is right there.”
To keep up with the convenience competitors like Whole Foods offer, Schneider’s introduced delivery, including its Schneider’s Selects wine club. On the first Monday of every month, they ship members three ($95) or six ($175) hand-picked bottles.
“We’re really trying to stay current and reach all the young people moving into the amazing condos that are coming into the neighborhood on H Street NE and Eastern Market,” Elyse says. “That’s how we’re adapting to the changing climate of retail.”
Schneider’s is able to soldier on for several reasons. First, staff members import wine directly, meaning customers don’t pay a middle man. “They’re not paying an importer, wholesaler, and retailer,” Elyse explains. “They’re getting everything at the best possible price.” And the wines are meticulously selected. “We taste hundreds of wines to find just a few worthy of being on our shelves.”
The 70-year-old business also dabbles in private-label wines. “We find wine from well known producers who have produced too much wine and don’t want to dilute their brand,” Elyse says. “They sell us the juice and we work with a team in California to do all the bottling and labeling.” She points to a Sonoma cabernet sauvignon that would cost $80 under the winery label. Schneider’s sells it for $30.
Finally, Schneider’s builds relationships with customers by educating them through tastings, wine dinners, and seminars for aspiring oenophiles. One such seminar hones in on the benefits of cellaring wine. “Most consumers in the U.S. buy a bottle of wine and drink it 30 minutes after it’s been purchased,” Elyse says. “We’re trying to get people excited about investing in wine and aging it at home. They’ll see the rich reward when the wine becomes mature.”
On Barracks Row, Chat’s Liquors co-owner Burnie Williams actually credits a big box store with helping his business. He believes that when Costco opened in the District in 2012, it prompted a change in permitted operating hours. “Costco changed the game,” he says. “Sunday hours were a no-go.” Mayor Vince Gray signed the legislation allowing for expanded hours in 2013.
Neil Chatlin opened Chat’s in 1934, shortly after Prohibition was repealed. He was among the first to obtain a liquor license in D.C., but the history between when Chatlin opened Chat’s and the Williams family purchased the business in 1978 is hazy. Williams has a hunch Chat’s closed after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. “A lot of business owners boarded up and got out of town,” Williams says.
When Williams’ father died in 1999, the rest of the family stepped up to keep the business going, including William’s mother Ophelia B. Williams and his sister Dr. Opal B. Williams. The first year was a grind because Burnie was simultaneously finishing college at Temple University in Philadelphia.
According to Burnie, sales have been steady over the past 20 years except for one month when business dramatically spiked for the inauguration of President Barack Obama. “Absolutely nothing else has come close to the influx of people to this city and the celebrations that were happening,” he says. January is traditionally a slow month, but Chat’s did as much business in the first month of 2009 as they did from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve in 2008 combined.
Visit Chat’s and you’ll likely see Burnie pouring samples. “We’re happy to educate, give recommendations, and do free tastings,” he says. “Everything has been opened from a little $10 cava to a $1,000 bottle of wine. If we don’t taste people on it, they’ll never know.” His goal is to introduce customers to products before they become trendy.
“The craft movement for spirits has really changed the landscape of what we’re doing,” Burnie says. “Craft” is tricky to define, but generally refers to smaller producers that are carrying out the fermentation and distilling themselves. “It’s having a product that’s transparent, where you can get the person who is doing the producing on the phone, shake their hand, and get that one-on-one information.”
Because consumers want to enjoy the quality of these spirits, Burnie believes customers are masking their taste with fruity mixers less frequently. “People aren’t afraid of flavor anymore,” he says. “In the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s, it was all about having some sort of sweetened fruit profile. I call it the McDonald’s effect. There’s something about those fries that are so good, but you can’t have them every day or you run the risk of tiring of them.”
Eventually, the modern craft bartending movement ushered back in Prohibition-era style cocktails with botanical, herbal, bitter, and floral flavor profiles. “There’s a correlation between the cutting-edge restaurant and bar scene and what happens in the retail space,” Burnie says. He believes there are more “home mixologists” than ever. “They’re building drinks off these amaros, vermouths, and anise-based spirits and using gin and whiskey as the foundation and having fun. It’s no longer just a simple vodka and juice or vodka and tonic.”
All four liquor stores report a boom in brown liquor sales across all demographics of imbibers. And just as whiskey aficionados seek out bars with the most robust selections, they also seek out liquor stores with plenty of shelf space devoted to bourbon, rye, Scotch, and Irish whiskey.
“People 25 to 30 years old are spending $50 or $60 on a bottle of bourbon,” says Rick Bellman, the co-owner of Paul’s Wine & Spirits. He contends that bourbon and rye sales are catching up to wine sales. Wine has historically been the backbone of the business, which Rick, his brother Steve Bellman, and father, Sonny Bellman, purchased from the original owner in 1984. Paul Hyman first opened the shop in 1969.
Rick says either he or his brother are always present at the store to make recommendations and discuss food pairings. “We feel like we’ve gotten the confidence of our customers as far as hand-selecting items for them. That’s one reason they come to us.” Lately they’ve been recommending Spanish and Portuguese wines, “which are coming on strong right now.”
Paul’s is a “destination store,” according to Rick, because foot traffic is sparse on the stretch of Wisconsin Ave NW where it’s located. To keep up with big box stores that sell alcohol, Paul’s turned to shipping alcohol as an additional revenue stream, much like Schneider’s. For a long time there were limitations on interstate shipping, but that’s set to change after a June Supreme Court ruling. “Currently there are 11 states we can legally ship to,” he says. “That’s been a challenging factor.”
Less than two miles away from Paul’s, Ed Sands operates Calvert Woodley Fine Wines & Spirits. The Van Ness shop opened in 1982 when two competitors merged—Aaron Bernstein’s Calvert Liquors in Glover Park and Sands’ Woodley Wine & Liquor in Cleveland Park. Eight people on staff have worked there for at least 25 years.
In addition to wine, beer, and liquor, Calvert Woodley boasts a cheese and deli counter that makes it a one-stop-shop for entertaining. “I always believed that we want to have something for everybody because you never know what will happen with consumers’ changing tastes,” Sands says.
Sands saw the most dramatic change to the liquor store sector throughout the 70s. That’s when Calvert Woodley stopped doing everything by hand and computerized. It’s also when they stopped selling cigarettes and started focusing on importing and selling fine wines from Europe and elsewhere. In the same era, customers started to pay more attention to domestic wines.
“American wines really came into the forefront in the ’70s,” Sands says. “It was always the perception that imported wine was better than American wine and then several competitions debunked that. They sold much better.”
In his 53 years in the business, Sands has seen highs and lows. One particularly trying moment was in the early ’90s when a supplier failed to deliver more than a million dollars worth of wine for an event. The shop had sold most of it in advance and had to scramble to replace it. But he attributes his store’s longevity to being a friendly place that people want to visit. “I guess we’ve been doing something right,” he says, “because we’ve been here for a long time.”