East Austin Liquor Swap
10 fun facts about East Austin's J&J liquor store and the new owners who plan to keep up its spirit(s)
Does a liquor store qualify as a neighborhood institution? If so, J&J Drug, which is in fact a liquor store on East 11th Street, surely makes the cut. If not, “landmark” or “fixture” will have to do.
Owned and operated since 1968 by members of the Joseph family — primarily twin brothers Harold and Howard — the liquor store stuck with the neighborhood through thick and thin, surviving both the blight that overtook the area in the 70s and 80s and the boom that has lately overtaken it in equal measure.
In recent years, J&J has been known for the old shotgun mounted behind the register and its generous, friendly owner Twin, who was almost always behind the counter.
In recent years, the store has been known both for its artifacts reaching back to sketchier times — notably an old shotgun mounted behind the register, which had not been needed in many years — and its generous, friendly owner/operators with great memories for names and faces. The past couple of years, it's been presided over by brother Harold, who came to be known as “Twin” (Howard passed away last December). Harold and the other owners kept up with the times, though, and stocked more and more au courant liquors in the tiny, crowded store as money and craft-everything preferences flowed into the neighborhood.
Harold and family finally passed the torch recently, selling the business to owner/operators Rachel Lingvai and Billy Benedict and a few other neighborhood investors (the Josephs still own the building, which also houses the Longbranch Inn). There have been renovations and product additions, but they new owners are committed to maintaining the store’s status as a welcoming, familiar neighborhood place. “We’re a bridge between old school and new school,” says Lingvai. “We still want the old school here.”
Lingvai lived in J&J’s central East Side neighborhood for several years, as has Benedict, who still lives there. “I was a neighbor and a customer of the place,” he says. “I purposely spent my money here, in my neighborhood. It was like voting.”
For him, it was important to keep it in the neighborhood, doing essentially what it has done for decades. “I wanted the neighborhood to have its store,” he says.
J&J Spirits will celebrate its history and its future with a grand relaunch tomorrow, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2pm-7pm (weather be damned). There will be tastings from Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Garrison Brothers Bourbon, DulceVida Organic Tequila, Virtuoso Selections Wines and Pioneer Wine Company, music and more.
While you bide your time until Saturday afternoon, here are some fun facts about J&J old and new to keep you occupied:
- The store was already in operation as a drug and liquor emporium when the Josephs bought it in 1968.
- Its registered name is still J&J Drug, which the new owners are changing to J&J Spirits so “we don’t have to keep getting calls from people wanting Sudafed,” says Benedict.
- The Joseph Brothers included sales tax in their labeled prices. The new owners will not.
- The Josephs kept a real armory behind the counter to back up the decorative wall weaponry if needed.
- The TV that the Josephs kept in the corner and was always on has been replaced by a new one in the other corner, but it’s still on.
- Harold and Howard were known neighborhood-wide for their ability to remember people and for their generosity; they’d throw in samples with your purchase or let you bring your dogs in the store, where Twin would feed them treats.
- When there was a movement to allow liquor stores to open on Sundays, the Josephs came out against it, saying “Sundays are family days.”
- The new owners will be expanding J&J’s beer selection substantially and are aiming to have one cooler of all Texas beers. They will also carry wine that Benedict says they “want to stay in the convenient range,” financially — the focus will be on liquor, but they want to be one-stop shop for spirits.
- Nathaniel Boomer of Drophouse, a design and fabrication studio a few blocks away on East 12th Street, built the wine cabinet for the new folks.
- For the foreseeable future, the Joseph brothers will preside over the place in spirit; their picture still hangs prominently on the back wall, continuing to survey the comings and goings of their long-lasting landmark.