By Emily J. Weitz
When Bob and Barbara Schmitz bought Sag Harbor Liquors in 1975, they bought a whole lifestyle. Along with the business, they purchased the building, and the 26-year-old couple and their young son moved to Main Street. Four more children and eight grandchildren later, the Schmitz family still sits at the heart of village. They’ve participated in everything from the volunteer fire department to the girl scouts to the Chamber of Commerce, and it remains as much a family tradition as it’s ever been.
As soon as you walk in the front door of Sag Harbor Liquors, you can feel it’s a family place. Maybe it’s the bucket of lollipops always available for free, or the Girl Scout cookies for sale year round. But more likely, it’s the casual authority of the person behind the counter: usually a member of the family. There’s no snobbery, no high-brow airs. They’re always available with a suggestion or some wisdom about a certain bottle of wine, or maybe just a light-hearted wise crack to set you at ease.
“A well-known actor came in back in the 80s,” said Mr. Schmitz, “and he was wandering around for a while. Finally I walked over to him and said, ‘You actors are all alike. Without a director you don’t know what you’re doing.’ He belly laughed, and became a great customer for many years.”
Back when the kids were younger, the family of seven lived in the apartment upstairs, so the storefront felt like an extension of the home.
“I used to roller skate with my sisters in the back,” said Hilary Schroeder, the fourth of five Schmitz children, who’s often seen behind the counter. “We had a pretend clothing store in the basement. It was just a part of our house.”
Mr. Schmitz had been inspired by stories of small business owners in Europe, where it was common to own a business and live upstairs.
“They’d close from 3 to 6 p.m. for the midday meal, then reopen and stay open late,” he said. “We lived that way from 1975 to 1991, with our five children.”
Because the home life and work life were completely intertwined, the kids grew up with an understanding of the business. They’d help ring people up or put labels on merchandise. Now, two of the Schmitz’s daughters work in the shop, and their eldest son has a liquor store on Shelter Island.
“Life and work and family is all one,” said Mr. Schmitz. “We don’t consider this work. We consider it a lifestyle. If you’re not doing what you like, you shouldn’t be in it.”
With eight grandchildren, history is repeating itself. There have been years where babies were regularly strapped to a momma’s chest behind the counter, and a collage of family photos is plastered beside the register. The little ones are used to going on deliveries, and the older ones are learning what it is to have a stake in something.
Ms. Schroeder motions to the photo of her father and her young son in their Sag Harbor Liquor shirts by the register.
“All on his own,” she says, “Shane started handing out business cards to our customers from behind the counter. This is what we live and breathe. When I have to take them on deliveries, they get it. This is the only way we do it.”
Just as the store has become a focal point in their family, with its neon sign and its information board out front, the Sag Harbor Liquor Store has been a focal point of the village.
“We’re like the information booth at the windmill,” said Ms. Schroeder.
Being involved in the community, and giving back in the ways they can, has always been a part of the business.
“There’s an old adage,” said Mr. Schmitz, “that if you give to the community, they will give back to you. It’s the oldest way of doing things.”
As they engage with the community, they also have a lot of fun. Whether it’s interacting with their customers – many of whom have watched the family grow and change – or helping out with a Chamber of Commerce event, this connection helps them enjoy their work. Mr. Schmitz contrasts this way of living and doing business with big box stores, whose employees have little stake in the success of the business or the surrounding town.
“If you can take a business like this that’s inflation proof for 41 years,” he said, “and say we’re still having fun, that’s kind of important. We hope other small businesses can do the same.”
As they look to the future, there’s not a lot that the next generation wants to change.
“I hope it continues for generations,” said Ms. Schroeder, “and I hope it continues like this.”
Sag Harbor Liquor Store is located at 52 Main Street in Sag Harbor. For more information, call (631) 725-0054 or visit sagharborliquorstore.com.