Aside for the buildings themselves, one of the most permanent fixtures in front of Bouharoun’s Fine Wines & Spirits is a white, elephant-sized Ford F150 telling the world, “The boss is in.”
More often than not, the boss – Peter Bouharoun, the third-generation owner of one of Greenville’s oldest liquor stores – is on the move, either behind the register, or running cases of pricey booze in and out of the 69-year-old store.
“The best experience is getting your ass handed to you,” says Bouharoun, who used to help his father throw away boxes or stock shelves when he was done with school as a boy in Greenville. “My first taste of competition, at 10 years old, was when a competitor called the alcohol beverage board and said I was working at my daddy’s store. Isn’t that awful?”
Today, Bouharoun says he’ll reach $6 million in beer, wine and liquor sales by the end of the year, a leap from the $57,000 his father paid for the all-but-insolvent business at the corner of Falls and East Broad streets downtown in 1977.
“It’s a lot of volume, but it’s not a fast nickel,” he says. “It’s not a business that you’re going to get rich with. … You almost have to already have money and then just do it better.”
Three generations of liquor business
The history of Bouharoun’s stretches back to 1946, he says, when his grandparents Peter and Mera Bouharoun started their own alcohol establishment on a part of Coffee Street that doesn’t exist anymore, in the plot of land now occupied by the ONE building and ONE City Plaza. Outside of the city, Greenville was a dry county, and county residents traveled for miles to the city to purchase alcohol. The city was flush with liquor stores until county ordinances changed, and then liquor stores within the city became somewhat of a problem for Greenville.
“Basically they became a burden for the city of Greenville, because you had an oversaturation,” said Bouharoun. “To this day, to get a liquor store in the city of Greenville you have to apply for a special exemption permit because they had such a problem.”
When his grandfather died in 1977, Bouharoun’s father William took over, just after a competitor in Greenville – Martin Stein, who owned Bouharoun’s current Falls Street location – passed away, leaving then-mayor Max Heller as executor of his estate. Yet another competitor – Jules Hyman of Better Beer & Wine – introduced William and Heller, while led to the sale.
Heller “told my father, ‘Yeah, we’re going to turn downtown around,’ and my daddy believed in Max,” says Bouharoun.
Built on booze
In the 1970s and 1980s, downtown was still struggling, he says, even after the city downsized Main Street from four lanes to two. Alcohol played an important role in jump-starting Greenville’s downtown, he says, even if some prefer not to talk about it.
“It wasn’t until 10, 15 years later that things started really picking up, and it was mainly because of alcohol. People wanted to drink downtown and have a good meal, and obviously people don’t stay and have a good meal without wine or a drink,” said Bouharoun. “Don’t get me wrong, you have to be sensible … but that is what made people want to live downtown and buy expensive condos. It’s because of the nightlife.”
Though he spent his childhood around Falls Street, Bouharoun didn’t intend to go into liquor right out of school. After earning an accounting degree from the University of South Carolina, he made a deal with his dad that he’d work at the store for free, as long as he was allowed to set up, manage and keep the profits of then-legal video poker machines inside.
“By the time I was 26, I was making more money than my parents off of those machines,” said Bouharoun, who ran 10 machines in total. “It was from about 1996 to 2000 … and my dad was so mad. He wanted to get his hands on that money, but I made a deal with him, and I wouldn’t let him.”
Today, Bouharoun isn’t afraid of being at the center of a rapidly developing patch of the city. The new 130-bed Hyatt Place Hotel, expansion plans at neighboring Erwin Penland and any number of new apartments and condos will only bring the right type of customer to his store, he says.
“It brings the first kind of person who’s going to want to buy a $50 bottle of wine, and a bottle of Grey Goose to go with it,” he says. “I’m not going to be pushed out. If anything, I’m going to buy something else.” he said, noting that he owns the building as well as some underdeveloped adjacent property.
The only spot of concern, he says, is making sure developers use high-quality materials now so that they won’t be discouraged from overhauls in 20 years because it’s too costly.
“That concerns me, because when it comes time for that stuff to be refinished, it’s going to be so expensive that, as developer or a hotel owner, they’re going to think, ‘OK, we’re going to sink this money in here if the demand is still here,’ but if not they’re going to lower the price of rent and let it decay and just bleed it on out,” he says. “Then you start bringing the wrong type of people back into downtown Greenville, or your hotel goes from a Hyatt Place to a freaking Days Inn.”