SIGN O’ THE TIMES

For more than 50 years, Weiss Liquors’ neon has been a beacon for thirsty East Siders

  • Photo by Eric England
     
    The sign — or really its potential disappearance from a venerated perch overlooking 824 Main Street — is one of the things keeping Weiss Liquors thriving into a third generation.
         “It bothered me to think that Weiss Liquors sign would come down, that some other name would be on this building,” says Anne Nicholas Weiss, 38, who recently took over the store, a Main Street landmark as much for its sign as for the spirits dispensed within. “It bothered me and my dad.”
         Dad — 71-year-old Kenneth Weiss, the second-generation owner of the liquor store that has its roots in a Meridian Street Prohibition speakeasy — knew it was time to get out of the business. He could have cashed in.
         “This property around here is really valuable,” he says, nodding at a customer who comes in and hollers, “Kenny, Ken-nay,” on his way to the refrigerated spirits.  “I’ve been getting a lot of offers from people who have been interested in it for the last two years.”
         After all, this is East Nashville, where real estate prices surge.
         Even so, no one met the price that would separate him from his heritage and that beloved pink sign with its yellow and green neon lettering (his mother’s favorite colors) blazing into the East Nashville night.
         His daughter — who remembers “growing up” in this liquor store — listened to her dad talk about the possible sale. 
         That’s when Anne Nicholas decided the “Weiss” name needed to remain as one of the most-visible and viable landmarks in 
    East Nashville.
         Anne Nicholas knows a bit about real estate, East Nashville or otherwise, because of her day job:  “I oversee commercial construction for a development firm,” she says. “It’s commercial real estate. 
         We build grocery stores and shopping centers.” And, she adds, they build liquor stores, too.
         It remains a good job, and she enjoys it. “I really thought that was the path my life was going to take,” she says, admitting lately she’s been getting a bit sidetracked by melancholy while listening to her dad talk about selling this place.
         Anne Nicholas spent a lot of her life below that Weiss Liquors sign. “When I was little, about 5, I’d get up early on Saturday to come here with my dad,” she recalls. “The only decision I had to make then was whether I was going to order one biscuit or two at Mrs. Winner’s” en route to the store.
         She laughs, and adds the store became even more of a “home’’ for her after her pop built a “tree house” in the storeroom for her and big sister Robinette Weiss Gaston. 
         The tree house was there to keep the girls out of trouble while dad and mom, Judy — “my name’s really Julia, but everyone calls me Judy” — worked at the family business.
         That tree house was “planted” by parental fear, Anne Nicholas notes, soft lament flavoring her words. “One day my sister and I were jumping over boxes back there (in the storeroom), and we dumped about 10 over,” she explains. “At least they didn’t break.”
         To protect his girls and likely his spirits, Kenneth built the tree house. “It’s been gone a long time,” Anne Nicholas says. “He needed more room in the stockroom,” and, of course, her and Robinette’s tree house youth is long in the mist.
         The store itself could have vanished, until October when Anne Nicholas and her wife decided it worth a gamble. Once Kenneth decided it was time to retire, he began fielding offers from land speculators and developers.
         Anne Nicholas knew her dad deserved to give up the long days and crazy nights demanded of a liquor store owner, and spend even more time on the Hillwood Country Club links. 
         She also began thinking about her lineage and what Weiss Liquors has meant to the neighborhood no matter the economic climate.
         “I didn’t want him to be taking down that sign,” she says, smiling brightly on an afternoon when winter’s cruel promise flavors wind blowing down Main Street. 
         “So I went home to my wife, and I said ‘What do you think if we asked my dad if we could buy the store?’ My family had been in business for two generations, and it hurt me to think about seeing it end.
         “We think the neighborhood is going to grow around here,” she adds, looking toward the door of the liquor store as another regular enters. Rather than let the Weiss store go away and become another chess piece in the game of “it city” change, she and her wife “wanted to maintain the feel we have around here.”
         And she is a businesswoman, wise to the pluses of such an establishment. 
         “It’s not recession-proof, but people always are going to drink,” she says, noting that when the economy finds itself in times of trouble “they just drink less expensive” labels.
         If she and wife Kristin hadn’t decided to save it, condos, sparkling new commercial construction, a restaurant, or trendy gin joint could have overtaken this Ninth-and-Main corner of East Nashville.
         “We’ve been married two years and four months,” says Anne Nicholas, whose sparkling black Infiniti SUV often can be seen parked in a nook of driveway tucked against the store’s Main Street wall. 
         “We have been together for six years, but we had to wait to get married until they made it (same-sex marriage) legal.
         “It became legal on June 26, 2015, and we were married July 31 at the courthouse,” she says. “Just us. We wanted a marriage. We really didn’t want a wedding.
          “I was six months pregnant with twins, and I’m old-fashioned enough that I didn’t want my children born without their parents being married,” she says. “After the ceremony, we wore our wedding dresses to Mas Tacos and celebrated.”
         The twins, Locke and his sister Jones, results of intrauterine insemination, were born into a loving household, not far from the family liquor store. 
         “Who knows, they may grow up and want to run this business,” becoming a fourth generation of Weisses to stand by the counter she leans against while washing down her story with a can of flavored, sparkling water.
         Well, it actually probably won’t be this exact counter, as Anne Nicholas and Kristin want to do some updating. 
         “We’ll probably get rid of the ceilings,” she says, looking up at the acoustic tiles about eight feet off the floor. “My dad won’t like that, because he’d think I was wasting electricity.”
         The removal of the tiles to open up the ceiling will mean bills for heating and cooling will increase, “but the way it will look with the higher ceiling will be worth it,” she says. 
         They also plan additional up-to-date styling, including adding a larger office Anne Nicholas can use for both her commercial development duties and her spirits business.
         What won’t change is the basic neighborhood liquor-store feel that greets customers as varied as the woman who walks in to buy a pint of early-afternoon gin and the multiplying gentry seeking, perhaps, 12-year-old 
    Scots Whisky.
         That neighborhood “family” feel is enhanced by the loyalty the staff has for the Weiss family. 
         “They treat you fair,” says John Elkins, a 20-year employee. “You don’t get rich here, but you make a decent living and (the Weisses) treat you good. They treat you like family.”Elkins goes on to note that his previous job — at a liquor store torn down to make way for what is now Nissan Stadium — had become risky. 
         “I got robbed three times there,” he says. “I haven’t had any problems here.”
         He shakes off the question when asked if he should be called “manager.” “We all manage the store,” he says. “This is a team effort. I’m just the senior man.”
         Kenneth says he now works for his daughter and is her proud landlord, collecting “fair rent” from Anne Nicholas and Kristin.
         Anne Nicholas stops in most mornings before going to her “real” job and often swings back in the afternoon. “Then I go home, she says. “We put the twins down at 7, so I’ll usually come back and work here from 7-10 p.m. I want to keep a good work-family balance.”
         Family always has been the forefront of this business, going back to the bootlegging and speakeasy days. While this is a third-generation family package store, you can trace the Weiss clan’s East Nashville liquor legacy to 1890, when Kenneth’s Grandpa Nick ran a saloon on North First.
         Weiss Liquors was birthed when “whiskey became legal in 1938 and dad opened up the store in ’39,” Kenneth says, referring to the first generation of this liquor store dynasty: his father, Arthur, and his Uncle Nick.
         “The store, when it was on Meridian Street, had been a speakeasy from 1931 to ’38”….until Prohibition was snuffed, according to Kenneth. 
         “I was born in ’46. I do remember the old store on Meridian Street. I was 12 when they closed it up” in 1958.
         The family then built a store at Fourth and Main, but it was short-lived, as it was in the path of I-65. “That’s when we moved to the current location. In 1961.”
         He admits the speakeasy business wasn’t the family’s only battle with Prohibition. They also were bootleggers.
          “Daddy’s older brother, Nick, raced greyhound dogs, and that would take him up to Chicago. He could get Canadian whiskey there, so he would always come home with a load of whiskey.” Most of that product was sold to other bootleggers.
         Nick and Arthur also had a connection in New Orleans who could get them pure, grain alcohol. 
         “They mixed the grain alcohol with the Canadian whiskey,” he says, describing his elders’ alcohol alchemy. 
         The second-oldest Weiss brother, Rene, worked in the family business from the 1940s until dying in 1992.
         A sad chapter in the family history was the death of Arthur, who had been a World War II pilot-training instructor and continued doing that after his discharge. 
         In March 1966, while flying a friend’s airplane to Gallatin, “he lost the one engine that ran the hydraulics” and he (and a passenger) crashed and died.
         “I was going to Georgia Tech, but I was home on spring break when that happened,” Kenneth recalls.
         Anne Nicholas chirps in with a bit of the story as it’s been told over the decades. “I’ve heard that he (her dad) and some friends had been out the night before and they drank a little too much.” So Kenneth stayed home and slept it off rather than going ahead with plans to travel with his dad on that fatal flight.
         After things settled down, Kenneth went back to college and worked on his civil engineering degree, never figuring he’d go into the family business. 
         In fact, after he graduated in 1969, he got a job in his field working for McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis.
         “I came back to Nashville in the summer of 1970,” he says. “I had taken a job with Quaker Oats over in Memphis.” 
         That’s when his mother, Lucille – who had been running the liquor store with Uncle Nick – “asked if I would stick around for 
    three weeks.”
         He never punched in at Quaker Oats, instead immersing himself in Weiss Liquors. 
         “You do whatever it takes in life, but everything would have turned out differently if I’d have gone to the job in Memphis,” he says. 
         “I got married, and we started having kids, and when that happens, you gotta figure out a way to make it.”
         And he knew his future was bright. “People have been drinking alcohol for many centuries,” and he doesn’t expect that thirst to dry up anytime soon.
         “This neighborhood greatly changed in the 1960s and 1970s,” thanks largely to urban renewal, he says. Now he sees it changing back, getting gentrified, giving him a chance to cash in on his property if desired, “but I really don’t need to.”
    Instead, Anne Nicholas picked up the generational baton. 
         “I think the best thing is we’ve kept it in the family, and we are not walking away” from this changing neighborhood, she says.
         She had feared seeing that bright Weiss Liquors sign extinguished. 
         Now it’s her job to keep it shining over Main Street.