Food | Hyde Park

Through the Grapevine

57th Street Wines and the business of small businesses in Hyde Park

Reginald Rice

Stacks of shelves, repurposed. In the Hyde Park storefront at the intersection of 57th Street and Harper Avenue that formerly housed Southside Hub of Production, a cultural center, and before that O’Gara & Wilson—Chicago’s oldest bookstore before it moved to Indiana in 2013—now stands 57th Street Wines, the neighborhood’s newest small business: a specialty wine and liquor store. At the shop’s grand opening last Friday, distributors set up tasting tables on the store’s boldly checkered floor tiles (restored from the space’s bookstore days), while customers met and mingled, wine samples in hand. The trio behind the store, owner Steven Lucy and co-workers Bex Behlen and Derrick Westbrook, were present in their semi-formal best, directing customers to shelves not unlike the ones that held volumes of books less than four years ago. This time, their contents concerned neither genre nor author, but red and white .

57th Street Wines has only been open since December, but the idea behind it was conceived in 2015. Lucy, who also owns Open Produce—a grocery store in East Hyde Park—and co-owns Cornell Florists, began selling wine and beer at Open Produce around that time, an experience that inspired him and Behlen to expand their operation. When Lucy fortuitously came across the available 57th Street storefront after Southside Hub of Production moved out, they pounced.

Last year, Lucy approached 5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston to talk through the idea, prompting a community meeting in July that ultimately resulted in the go-ahead from the neighborhood for the wine undertaking. Support from local residents was key for Lucy.

“To me, that tells me that not only did the alderman support the liquor license, which was important to deal with, but that I hadn’t misread the community,” Lucy said. “The community really wanted us to be here, which is great. Because I don’t want to be here if people don’t want me to be here.”

Community as cornerstone is an attitude that has remained central in the establishment of 57th Street Wines. Lucy envisions the store as more than a place where people buy wine and leave, but where close interactions happen and relationships are formed.

“People come in and they don’t just feel like they exchange dollars for a bottle of wine, or exchange dollars for a piece of produce,” Lucy says. “They feel like they know their cashiers’ name and they have a personal people-to-people interaction and are not just cogs in the capitalist machine or whatever.”

Behlen, who’s been a manager at Open Produce for five years, says that she knows “about eighty percent of [the] faces” that come through the grocery store every day. Already, she says, she’s beginning to see the same happening at 57th Street Wines, despite it being open for only a month and a half.

It’s this congenial atmosphere that Lucy hopes will encourage customers to explore wine regardless of their level of prior expertise. Derrick Westbrook, the former wine guru at Michelin-starred restaurant Elizabeth who joined Behlen and Lucy in their venture as the store’s sommelier, aims to aid this exploration. His presence has added extensive wine knowledge to the enthusiast establishment, bolstering its aspirations as the neighborhood alcohol-educational watering hole with one-on-one guidance, regular tastings, and workshops that aim to get customers acquainted with more specialized areas of the liquor world.

Despite these intentions, it’s difficult to divorce a specialty wine shop from its Euro-centric and upper-middle-class associations. Lucy remains adamant that the shop isn’t exclusionary, with most wines in the store’s “core” being priced between $8 and $50. “We’re not selling $3 bottles of Yellowtail,” Lucy said. “And with beer we have Ducati, we have Modelo, but we don’t have Natty Ice, or Budweiser. I just don’t have much interest in selling those things. I think there’s beer that’s a lot better that’s only a little bit more expensive. And I’d rather sell that.”

It’s a bid to keep 57th Street Wines as a purveyor of quality wine and beer, but without pretension and exclusivity. The careful balance between the two is perhaps maintained because the trio sees running the business as something ultimately rooted in fun. Behlen describes shopping at the store as “kind of more like going to a record shop than a grocery store.” 

Westbrook’s contribution to the store has riffed off of this uniqueness, expanding the horizons of what people think wine is and should be. For him, a particular point of pride is being able to bring in and introduce wines by African-American winemakers. The latest edition in the store’s collaboration with the Promontory—a monthly wine and food pairing night called the Hyde Park Wine Society—centers on wines from African-American winemakers like Brown Estate and Other People’s Pinot (O.P.P.), which they also carry in-store.

“Whatever it is, whatever arena that you’re in, it’s always great to be around or you look to people who you can identify with,” Westbrook says. “The first African-American winemaker who I came into contact with…was Brown Estate. And I mean, awesome juice! It was just great wine. And I didn’t know that they were black winemakers until after the fact, so that was fun. Because there’s a stigma that I didn’t want to like them because I knew they were black-owned. I wanted to like them because their wine was good.”

Tasting good is the underlying standard of the bottles on 57th Street Wines’ shelves, but beyond that, Westbrook says the shop looks to the community for inspiration, taking suggestions and feedback, and trying as much as possible to get requested wines on their shelves. Ultimately, he says, “We want the store to look like the community. And the best way to do that is to bring in things that the community likes.”

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The uphill task of starting a small business in a neighborhood like Hyde Park, with its recent rapid commercialization, can feel daunting. Already, the daily routine of running a business—the planning and execution, the negotiating and liaising, the scheduling and physical grunt work—even split among the three-person team, is enormous. With new additions like a Whole Foods and a Target, which have the economies of scale to offer deals and low prices, small business owners like Lucy are feeling the heat.

Lucy was reluctant to point only to these new additions as the cause of slowing sales at Open Produce, citing factors like seasonal changes, the slowdown from the spike of sales after the store acquired its liquor license, and the University of Chicago closing down a nearby residence hall, where many students were consistent customers. “There are too many variables to say definitively, but we do think that Whole Foods has eaten into our business at Open Produce a little bit,” he conceded. “Not as much as we were fearing, but more than enough that we noticed.”

As the owner of three small businesses in the neighborhood, Lucy is, naturally, concerned about the plight of small business owners in the neighborhood. He sits on the advisory board for the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce (HPCC), an organization, he explains, that’s concerned not necessarily just with small businesses in the neighborhood, but with business interests at large. Therefore, institutions like the UofC and other large businesses like Mac Properties  also have a seat at the table alongside mom-and-pop storeowners like Lucy.

“I feel like in many neighborhoods, the Chamber of Commerce is mainly sort of run by small businesses” Lucy says. “But Hyde Park has these two huge players in it, the [UofC] and Mac, and I feel like they eat up a lot of the role of what a Chamber would do in a neighborhood.”

According to him, the UofC or Mac will actively seek out businesses that they want to have in the neighborhood, facilitating the process of bringing them in by negotiating a good deal for them on rent, securing storefronts or retail spaces, or guaranteeing marketing support. And while these businesses may not always be large chain stores, there’s no specific preference for small, independent businesses.

For Lucy, the way to curb commercial swell is a quiet revolution of his own. He adopts a conciliatory attitude towards the big property owners, saying, “They have their motives and I have my motives. And to be honest, ninety-five percent of the time both sets of motives totally align.” He adds, though, that he doesn’t want to live in a neighborhood that’s filled with chain stores, so he “copes by opening more and more non-chain stores.”

Lucy and Behlen, lifelong Hyde Parkers, advocate supporting other small businesses. It’s a simple action and one that doesn’t have to entail a militant refusal of all things chain store, Behlen illustrates. Regarding the recent closings of several small businesses on 53rd Street, Behlen notes, “It makes me sad, but I also, like, eat at Chipotle sometimes. I like Chipotle. I like that it’s a block from my house now.” She emphasizes that it’s just “important that we remember and have intention to support [stores] like Freehling Pots and Pans, now that Target is there.”

In the David and Goliath battle playing out in the commercial development of Hyde Park, perhaps what’s most heartening to hear is the continued cooperation between the neighborhood’s small business owners. Lucy tells the story of Hyde Park Produce pitching in after the freezers failed at Open Produce, and the support from other 57th Street businesses, including Medici and Salonica, shortly after the wine shop opened down the road. “We take care of each other,” Behlen says. “We have each other’s backs.”

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The grand opening of the wine shop last week was filled with that feeling of family. With food provided by friends from restaurants along 57th Street and the store filled with Chicagoans from the neighborhood and beyond, Lucy, Behlen, and Westbrook had their hands full explaining wines to customers, ringing up purchases, and ensuring the opening was kept afloat with wine, beer, and conversation.

A collection of records culled from Hyde Park Records played in the background as visitors weaved through grasping plastic wine cups, making the atmosphere feel like a family get-together. “I’m finding it like someone’s big social room, family room,” said Hyde Park resident Betty Virginia Holcomb. “They have books, they have records, they have all kinds of spirits. And many of them are local, which is wonderful. It’s a real family vibe.” When asked whether she’d return, she replied, “Totally. I like mom-and-pop.”

For the trio behind the wine shop, it’s enough for now to simply keep chugging along and keeping up with the daily operations. None see the shop as some kind of game-changing commercial venture for the neighborhood, but simply as a way to meet a neighborhood need that they also enjoy fulfilling. Behlen puts it simply: “We painted the walls, we buffed the floors, and we put some wine on the shelves. And we learned about it, and we want to sell it to you, because we want you to drink nice wine. Or wine that makes you feel good.”

It’s a modest operation that nonetheless sees Lucy, Behlen, and Westbrook working hard to keep going, and for Behlen, who refers to Hyde Park as her “forever home,” it’s a way of being yet more rooted in the neighborhood. When asked about the changes that she’s seen in recent years, she remarks that what she wants most to see in the future is more people starting businesses of their own, just as she and her partners have done with 57th Street Wines.

“A business is hard work, but it’s not impossible. It’s not just for the Targets of the world,” she says. “Every time someone has an opportunity to be creative and prolific with an idea about what to do with our community, in any way…Please, let’s do something. You know? Just do anything. Because it’s changing and we should have a hand in it.”

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