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With their bright neon signs and flashy facades, liquor stores shine like beacons in D.C. Those located on exit routes such as Georgia Avenue NW, M Street NW, and South Capitol Street SW are relics from older times, when it was harder to acquire your spirit of choice in Maryland and Virginia. (Since it’s not a state, D.C. is also in a unique position when it comes to importing alcohol; stores can bring in a wider variety of products because they can purchase directly from wholesalers.)
Staff photographer Darrow Montgomery has, consciously or subconsciously, known the allure of D.C. liquor stores for most of his life. He recalls his father, a federal employee, stopping at Paul’s Wine & Spirits on Wisconsin Avenue NW on his way home to Bethesda. Montgomery started photographing these small independent businesses nearly a decade ago, when Barrel House Liquors moved out of its iconic, barrel-facaded building on 14th Street NW and set up shop in a smaller spot next door. And he returned to the project several months ago, after Paul’s announced its imminent closure. Montgomery aimed to capture the little stores scattered across D.C. neighborhoods and the architecture and signage that make them unique before more of them go the way of Paul’s. Outside Cap Liquor, Montgomery found the shadow of progress literally bearing down on the business.
We’re living in an era of abundance: We can buy spirits by the liter at Costco along with a big-screen TV, pounds of coffee, and snow shovels, or venture to McLean for deals on bottles at Total Wine. Tiny liquor stores are forgotten, and as our habits and routes through town change following the pandemic, it’s hard to know which ones will survive. Even the analog clock outside Target Liquor on Kennedy Street NW seems out of date. (It is, however, correct twice a day.)
For now, these pieces of old D.C. remain. They deserve a glance on your next journey around town, even if you’re not imbibing. —Caroline Jones