Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Sherry-Lehmann's Walk to the Park

After three months of chasing the folks as Sherry-Lehmann for an interview about their move from their old Madison Avenue digs to Park Avenue, the wine lords finally grants me an audience last Friday—a week and a half after the store opened. It was worth the wait to get a look at the place.

The story appears today on the front page of the New York Sun. Here is the text in full:

New Light for a Venerable Shop


The chairman of Sherry-Lehmann, Michael Aaron, looked through the long, curving window of his new second-floor office onto a stately expanse of Park Avenue. "I know the inside of every single store here — every corner on Park Avenue I looked at," Mr. Aaron, the proprietor of what is arguably the swankiest and most famous wine shop in New York, said.

But it was the northeast nook at 59th Street that would become the new home of Mr. Aaron's family business, started in 1934 by his father, Jack, a onetime bootlegger who supplied speakeasies, including the "21" Club, with booze.

The new space does not have the cozy cellar-like feeling of the storefront at 679 Madison Ave., which had been home to Sherry-Lehmann since 1948. But it does have an additional 3,000 square feet, plenty of room for a burgeoning staff, a wine cellar equipped with 2,200 holding bins, and a sweeping gold-black-and-glass, Art Deco façade that pours sunshine into the shop. "Wine is an intimidating subject," the executive vice president of Sherry-Lehmann, Chris Adams, observed. "Part of the advantage of this store is it is more light and open; it is less dark and foreboding."

The new locale, just one block from a busy stop on the Lexington Avenue subway line, also boasts more foot traffic than the sleepy locale on Madison Avenue at 61st Street ever did. "We didn't realize how busy this area is," Mr. Aaron said, noting that, in the Madison Avenue space, the store would often be open for an hour and a half before the first customer would come in.

When the Park Avenue store opened on August 28, there were customers from the moment the doors opened, recalled Mr. Aaron, resplendent in a dark pin-striped suit and pink tie, his gun-metal gray hair standing on end in various tufts. "We did a quarter million dollars worth of business the first day," he said. "We normally would have done $100,000."

The store has even pushed back its closing time from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. to accommodate the extra business.

Michael Aaron had been contemplating a move for several years before he made the short leap from Manhattan's ritziest avenue to Manhattan's ritziest boulevard. "When I was 8, we moved to 679 Madison and the store seemed mammoth at the time," he recalled, noting that the illusion dissolved with the years. "I'd been stretching the walls for so long. Meanwhile, our staff is growing, volume is unbelievable, and customer counts keep growing."

In 2000, he began the search for a larger space for his veritable temple of Bordeaux and Burgundy. "I looked at close to 100 different places," he said. "I was pulled by brokers as far north as 80th Street. I entertained the Time Warner building for a time."

But nothing seemed right.

Mr. Aaron was lucky enough to own the building that housed his Madison Avenue store, and one day in 2006, the rising real estate market delivered him an offer he couldn't refuse. He sold 679 Madison for an undisclosed amount to Vornado Realty Trust, with the proviso that Sherry-Lehmann be given the cushion of a five-year lease. He then redoubled his efforts to find new digs and struck pay dirt in less than a year, signing a lease at 505 Park Ave.

Now, all he had to do was move.

Mr. Aaron and Mr. Adams smile a lot, but they can't hide the fatigue of the last few months. "Somebody said today, What was your summer like?,'" Mr. Aaron, cracking a bitter smile, said.

He decided to execute the transition over a single weekend, so as not to lose any sales or continuity. And so he did — but it came at a price. "We were on a schedule of 17, 18 hours a day with little sleep," he said. Added Mr. Adams: "Those 72 hours when we moved were just a nightmare."

Due to ongoing construction, the only part of the new store that could be stocked prior to the shuttering of 679 Madison was the cellar. So the staff created a system wherein 505 Park Avenue was getting a truck delivery every two hours for nearly four weeks. Each vehicle contained 25 cases of wine — the most that can be fit in the store's new freight elevator.

One of the main jobs assigned to Mr. Aaron was of a more personal nature. Sherry-Lehmann patrons may recall the shop's haphazard décor of old bottles and wine paraphernalia. Mr. Aaron and his wife, an interior decorator, collected all those mementos and hung them carefully from the rafters of the new sales floor. "We spent 15 hours taking them down, and 10 hours putting them up," Mr. Aaron said.

There are more antiques on display upstairs, where Mr. Aaron plans to install a wine school in a year's time. There are empty vessels from the 1830s that once held Tokai, an ancient bottle of Old Overholt Rye, and an antique Pernod fountain. Of course, they didn't keep everything. One item left behind was a papier-mache figurine of The Sherry-Lehmann Man — a longstanding company mascot, which Mr. Aaron, now 67, crafted many years ago, when he was 7. "I thought it was the greatest sculpture ever made," he said. "But I took one look at it and said, ‘It's so ugly, let's leave it here.'"

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