THE BLOG
11/26/2013 08:29 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2014

Astoria Characters: The Cheers-to-You Guy

A job to get through college. That's all it was supposed to be. Eric Bernabo laughs.

Before he can say more, a customer comes in, apologizing for her "stupid question about wine."

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Eric never intended to buy Jolson Liquor.

There's nothing too silly to ask, he tells her. When he clears up the matter, he rings up the sale.

Like Eric, you'll have to get used to the interruptions. Even when Jolson Liquor is not busy, and by not busy, we mean a dozen customers every half hour, Eric is.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Jolson has been in business since 1935.

Where were we? Oh, yes, Eric's job at Jolson was to be temporary. Let's see, that was 28 years ago.

In those days, Eric, whose Italian immigrant parents settled in Astoria and summered in Milan, had his heart set on working on Wall Street. That's why he earned an MBA from NYU.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The neon sign is the only original element remaining.

"We were in a recession, and in job interview after interview, I was told that I had excellent credentials but no experience," he says. "At the same time, the owner of Jolson decided to sell."

Eric, a big gawky kid in a Walt Disney World shirt and jeans, didn't need a drink to think it over before he bought the store lock, stock and bottles.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Eric decorates the windows himself.

That year, 1992, Eric became the third proprietor in the long history of Jolson, whose survival since its establishment in 1935 makes it one of the older businesses in the Ditmars area.

Jolson sold its first bottle of booze when it was around the corner on Ditmars Boulevard, and in its teenage years, it moved to 31st Street in the space occupied by the older CVS. The year before Eric stepped behind the counter, it relocated to its present 31st Street site.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Beguira takes a cat nap.

The only thing it brought with it was its original neon sign that spells out LIQUOR in a maraschino cherry red that bathes the sparkly sidewalk in nostalgia.

Before Eric knew it, he was working 45 to 50 hours a week. Around the holidays, when Jolson draws 300 customers per hour, he starts racking up 80 to 90. The cats, Beguira and Chupee, keep him and his five-member staff company.

"Retail makes you its slave," he says. "Time off for me usually is only two to three hours on a given day. I spend a lot of my time off taking naps."

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Jolson is renowned for its wine selection.

When he got married, in 2000, his wife joined him at the store. They live in a house by Astoria Park that's around the corner from where Eric grew up. It was only after the birth of their daughter, 4-year-old Erica, that she allowed herself to stay home.

Business is steady, Eric says, because "people drink when they're happy, and people drink when they're sad."

They also drink when they go to parties. A customer comes in looking for a gift to take to her sister's house. Eric cradles her trio -- Tanqueray gin, Washington State Riesling and California Merlot -- and carries them to the counter, where he gift wraps them in red foil and ties their necks with snow-white ribbed ribbons.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Eric prides himself on customer service.

Another woman comes in to return a bottle of tequila that she claims was half drunk before she opened it. No questions asked, Eric offers her a fresh bottle. The celebration she bought it for is over so she'd rather have her money back. Before she can elaborate, Eric has handed her a $23 refund.

"It's nice not to have to fight over this," she says.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Chupee is a Dewar's fan.

After she leaves, Eric says, "We're all about customer service. I hope and I would like to think that people come in here because we're friendly and knowledgeable."

Two minutes later, a man comes in and spends $28, canceling out the $23 refund.

Eric's a wine guy who's partial to California Cabernet and French Burgundy. His wine collection numbers some 7,000 bottles; 1,000 of them are stored in a wine cave in his house.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
All set for the next sale.

There are eight more years left on Eric's lease, so he's not going anywhere soon.

He looks at the shop's plate-glass windows, the ones he decorates every season. It takes all weekend. Sure, he could hire someone to do it, but it just wouldn't look the same.

"Jolson is my private prison," he says. "I check in every morning, and I'm paroled every evening."

When he says this, he smiles.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com.
Copyright 2013 by Nancy A. Ruhling