A chance dinner changed everything

swartz HZT

(Photo by Alen Fetahi)

This December will mark 35 years since Peggy Schwartz and former business partner Mary Federoff opened up the wine and spirits shop in the CVS plaza. Back in 1978, the shopping center was just being built when the two women found themselves driving up the Thruway together one evening with their husbands, one a CPA and the other an attorney. The two men had been involved in researching the potential sale of a liquor store for a client, says Schwartz, “and in the back of their minds, they’d been thinking about buying a liquor store themselves. But at that time, people in New York State who held professional licenses couldn’t get a liquor license.”

But in one of those instances where a simple act can change the course of one’s life, the couples driving up the Thruway decided to exit at Saugerties to have dinner. When the two men saw the plaza going up and the vacancies available there, light bulbs went on.

Fast forward, says Schwartz, “and the two women who barely knew each other became best friends and partners” in Town & Country Liquors, despite misgivings about going into the business. “I had just had a baby and Mary had a child. I didn’t drink, I didn’t know anything about retail, and I said no at first.”

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She and Mary are still best friends, Schwartz says, but her former business partner now owns another store in the area. These days Schwartz captains the ship herself, with an able staff whom she credits with keeping her social media presence active. “It’s a constantly evolving thing,” she says.

Brooklyn born-and-raised Schwartz has lived in Ulster County since 1972, when the original plan to buy a vacation home in Hunter with her ex-husband ended up becoming a fulltime move for them from Queens to Stone Ridge instead. Schwartz worked for New York City’s Parks, Recreation & Cultural Affairs administration at the time, commuting to the city for that until deciding to work locally in her husband’s office in Kingston. Then in 1978 came the store.

How did a woman who didn’t even drink take on a wine and spirit shop? In the beginning, Schwartz says, the partners had a mentor in an acquaintance of her husband’s who was a salesman for a liquor company. “He basically came in and set the store up for us, and did all the ordering at first. Little by little, though, Mary and I started learning. We took wine classes and travelled to California a few times, and we educated ourselves.” Schwartz says that wasn’t as easy then without the Internet.

In time, Federoff had another child, and Schwartz says that the two women liked to say, “’between us we have three children,’ because we ran the business so we could work around that. We managed to be home when the kids got off the school bus.” After both marriages broke up in 1993, they really buckled down and got serious about the business, she says.

Schwartz lives in Port Ewen but spends most of her time in Saugerties. Or to paraphrase her friend Mery Rosado of Cafe Mezzaluna, Schwartz says she “sleeps in Port Ewen but lives in Saugerties.” She is co-chair of the Saugerties Area Chamber of Commerce and is involved with the local women’s networking group Alliance of Women Entrepreneurs (AWE). In her early days in business, she says, first as a young mother with a child and then as a struggling newly-divorced woman, she wasn’t able to be very involved in community affairs. “Then I realized that for your own sake you have to get involved, and you have to give back to the community. We have people who have been our customers forever, and I’m so appreciative of the fact that people come here and that I’ve managed to survive,” Schwartz says. “You gotta give back a little.”

She says she’s made a lot of friends through the Chamber of Commerce and sees so many people who “make Saugerties the best it can be. Keeping the local character, not letting it become a run-of-the-mill town; it’s the small-town feeling and the camaraderie of people that care that you see here.”

That caring was exemplified for her when the shop caught fire two years ago during the holiday season. “The amount of people that showed up to help, and how they all even knew about it, I don’t know,” says Schwartz. The sprinkler system that put out the fire caused major flooding, dissolving cardboard boxes holding bottles of wine and spirits to the point they collapsed. “Broken glass was everywhere,” says Schwartz. “It was a frightening scene — cold, and dark and wet. We weren’t allowed to open until all power was restored and every bit of water was cleaned out.”

The building inspector thought it would take weeks to reopen, she says, but thanks to all the people who showed up to help, they were back in business by 3 p.m. that afternoon. It was the day before New Year’s Eve, too, one of the busiest days of the year for a wine and spirits shop. “Even the relatives of our employees came in to help. It was really that feeling that out of adversity, this is what family does, this is what neighbors do — it was really touching.”

The topper: Schwartz’s daughter Lacey’s boyfriend Antonio Delgado had already planned on proposing marriage to Lacey on that New Year’s Eve. Although cleaning up after fire and flood wasn’t in the original plans, the couple came up from Brooklyn to help and stayed over. The proposal came off on time, juxtaposing the traumatic events for Schwartz with promise for the future. Now Schwartz is awaiting the arrival of her first grandchildren, a set of identical twins.

The former wine novice now says she thinks that everyone should have a glass of wine with dinner every night. “But that doesn’t mean a person should have to spend a lot of money on it,” Schwartz says. “Our claim to fame, I think, is that we have a constantly changing selection of wines that are really interesting and flavorful but very affordable, too.”

On the horizon are some wine dinners in collaboration with local restaurants planned and Schwartz says she’d like to start a wine club. They’ve also been working on getting more information out to customers by email, but Schwartz says that while she sees the benefits, “I really don’t want my business to be all about emailing. I like the personal. I get the convenience of it, but we have people that come and just want to chat, and I want to chat with them. We’re a small town, and I like the one-on-one.”

There is one comment

  1. Cornelia Seckel

    What an excellent profile of this extremely hard working and conscientious businesswoman. Her involvement and commitment to the community she serves is a role model for all business people.

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