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Last call for Liquor Land

After 68 years, Roxbury emporium faces uprooting

With daughter Christina, whom she has groomed to run Liquor Land, store co-owner Jackie Petrillo, 58, said the neighborhood has become safer in the decades she has helped run the place.
With daughter Christina, whom she has groomed to run Liquor Land, store co-owner Jackie Petrillo, 58, said the neighborhood has become safer in the decades she has helped run the place. (John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By David Abel
Globe Staff / November 26, 2007

The store has been torched at least three times and targeted by an angry customer armed with a bag of nitroglycerin. A man was stabbed 12 times next to the front desk, a dead body was found beside the back door, and a thug once shoved a double-barrel shotgun in the manager's side and pinched about $3,000 from the register.

Over the decades she has helped run Liquor Land, the gritty landmark on the cusp of the South End in Lower Roxbury, Jackie Petrillo has seen it all, and had more than enough reason to close.

But with so much history invested in the large store - she began as a teenager, doing paperwork in the office beside her mother; met her husband on the job; and has since groomed her daughter to take over - Petrillo refused to quit, certain that the neighborhood would improve.

Petrillo has seen her hopes fulfilled, as the store's revenues have more than doubled, with an increasing number of its 5,000 weekly customers buying fine wine instead of 40-ounce beers and nips.

But come January, after 68 years serving everyone from the homeless to college students to millionaires, the liquor store at Harrison Avenue and Northampton Street will close to make way for a CVS.

"We used to hear gunshots all the time, but now it's safer, a nicer atmosphere," said Petrillo, 58, who co-owns the store and has managed it since the 1980s. "We worked for this day for so long, and now this? I just can't believe it."

Adding insult to injury: It was her cousin, owner of the 75,000-square-foot building, who refused to renew her lease, opting instead for a negotiated deal with CVS.

"I would have bet my life that he wouldn't have done this," said Petrillo, whose 10-year lease on the building expired in April 2006. "I was shocked, absolutely shocked. This has been devastating. I don't think I'll ever get over it."

When reached on his cellphone, her cousin, John Corey, said before hanging up: "I don't want to get into it all."

Petrillo had heard rumors that her cousin was looking for a new, higher-paying tenant, but she didn't believe it. She said he had told her he would renew the store's lease, even if it meant sharing the space with a new tenant.

But in June she got a call from her cousin's financial adviser, who told her the store would have to close by Jan. 1. CVS has apparently agreed to pay double the nearly $10,000-a-month rent that Liquor Land pays. Petrillo's partners offered to match the extra rent, but she said her cousin would not accept their offers.

While neighborhood groups worry about chain stores replacing mom-and-pop businesses, they welcome a store selling medicine and sundries instead of an establishment whose best-selling products are the $20.99 Bacardi rum, the $20.99 Smirnoff vodka, and the $26.99 Hennessy cognac.

"This is a double-edged sword," said Dumas Lafontant, director of the Lower Roxbury Coalition. "It's never good when liquor stores outnumber supermarkets, and we welcome giving residents more access to medicine and other goods. On the other hand, we don't welcome a major corporation replacing a locally owned business."

Khalida Smalls, interim executive director of the Alternatives for Community and Environment group in Dudley Square, said she worries about the effects of gentrification on the neighborhood. "It's no disappointment to lose a liquor store," she said, "but we don't see CVS coming into the neighborhood as a sign of progress. What concerns us is a real community process, about letting the community have a say."

In recent weeks, the Petrillos have posted fliers around the store, announcing its imminent closure and asking customers to support their efforts to transfer the store's liquor license to another location. More than 700 customers have signed Liquor Land's petition seeking permission from the Boston Licensing Commission to transfer the license to a new store about a half-mile away, in Dorchester. Transferring a license can take months or years - the store has to persuade community groups, the city, and the state - but Daniel Pokaski, chairman of the Boston Licensing Board, said Liquor Land has the right credentials to make the case, with no violations on its record.

"If their record is good, then that's in their favor," said Pokaski, one of three licensing board members. "At first blush, the area they're looking at seems doable. But it's hard to say."

The closing of Liquor Land will affect others in the neighborhood besides customers, from the homeless who redeem bottles there each day to those who consider the store a second home.

Horace Renge, 56, an unemployed man with a big, toothless smile, comes by the store nearly every day to earn a few dollars fetching coffee for the Petrillos or sweeping the place. His picture is on one of the store's cash registers.

"I'll miss this whole place, everyone who comes here," said Renge, who said he has been coming to the store for 40 years.

Carolyn Williams also relies on the store for income. Every few days for about the past 15 years, the formerly homeless 52-year-old from Mattapan has been hauling thousands of cans a week to the store to redeem them for cash.

"I don't know what I'll do," said Williams, who earned $27 on one recent trip after feeding more than 500 cans into the machines.

David Mays has even more to lose. The president of Tow Happy earns about $2,800 a week towing cars from Liquor Land's lot, where people visiting the hospital often park illegally. "There's no way I'll replace this income," he said, after nearly towing the car of a reporter who had been at the store.

Petrillo and her daughter Christina, who are on a first-name basis with many customers, say their business is about more than money.

"My mom sat at this desk 10 days before she died," said Petrillo, pointing to a well-worn chair beside an array of bottles, from $1 nips of tequila to a $1,300 bottle of Rémy Martin Louis XIII cognac.

For years Petrillo fought to protect the store. She remembers when she and her mother locked a man in the store's beer chest after he had slipped a few bottles into his jacket. When another thief reached into the register, her mother slammed it shut, breaking four of his fingers. And when others tried to conceal bottles in their pants, Petrillo would confront them and say, "Give it up - like I didn't see it?"

What she'll miss most, she said, is the diversity of her clientele - the doctors and nurses from Boston Medical Center, the drag queens and kings from the South End, the neighbors who have been living near the store for decades.

"We've served a lot of people over the years," she said as her eyes reddened with tears, "and now many of them are my friends."

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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