Though vacant buildings and boarded-up storefronts occupy portions of Long Beach Road in Island Park, one business in the village has flourished for decades, and continues to draw customers from around the South Shore.
Peter Poulos, son of a Greek immigrant, opened Pop’s Wine and Spirits in 1945, giving it his father’s nickname. His son, current storeowner Nick Poulos, 62, who grew up in Island Park and now lives in Wantagh, took over the business in 1976. Though he has a college degree in engineering, Poulos decided to continue the family legacy, and has operated the store for the past 40 years.
The store has ramped up its selection, he said, and has had five expansions — the most recent in 2010. It now measures about 11,000 square feet on the first floor and 5,000 square feet upstairs, where inventory is kept.
“I determined that we were going to have to, with Island Park not being the most centrally located community in the world, give people a reason to travel here,” Poulos said, adding that the store also ships wine and liquor to customers across the country through its website. “… We were on the internet when people didn’t know what the internet was.”
Stepping into the store, which still has its original tile floor, one sees dozens of vodka varieties occupying five shelves along the left wall. On the far right, scotch, bourbon and whiskey enthusiasts can wander in their own aisle. Corridors housing gin, tequila and rum lead to a neon sign directing shoppers to Pop’s Fine Wine Room.
“The trouble with that wine room is you walk in and you get lost in there,” Island Park Mayor Michael McGinty said. “They have some wonderful wines, and you can’t help but try this one or try that one.”
Upstairs — open to employees only — boxes of wine and liquor are stored on floor-to-ceiling shelves. A conveyor belt carries inventory into the makeshift warehouse, where it is used to restock the store or sent to online customers.
Customers agree that Pop’s, which offers a selection of more than 6,000 wines from around the world — ranging from inexpensive varieties to some worth thousands of dollars — has dedicated staff ready to help. “All the staff are relatively local people,” McGinty said. “They’re all integral to the business. They’re all friendly, accessible, knowledgeable. All of that interaction between customers and staff makes for a tremendous business. Their ability to find anything you want is inestimable.”
Because Island Park is a small village, Poulos said, the store also relies on customers from neighboring towns. Rockville Centre resident Randi Tessitore, who visits Pop’s about once a month, said she took advantage of the store’s semi-annual sale, which marked down wine 30 percent from New Year’s Day to Presidents Day.
“I tend to come down here and buy the inexpensive stuff, and my husband comes back and gets the good stuff because he doesn’t trust me,” Tessitore laughed. “They have everything you could possibly want, and everyone’s helpful. It’s like a landmark, and it’s been here forever.”
Poulos said that the liquor industry has changed over the decades, as wine sales now account for a majority of purchases. He added that many customers have changed their mindsets too, wanting to offer their palate a range of flavors.
“A person would come in, he’d buy a case of wine and he’d buy the same case until he retired,” Poulos said of customers long ago. “And now people want to try new things. They may have a favorite, but where it used to be a case of the same wine, the more common purchase now is a case of 12 different bottles. They want to discover things. They … want to broaden their horizons.”
That’s why, Poulos said, Pop’s makes an effort to find wines “off the beaten path” at a good value. He added that the store’s staff of 28 full- and part-time employees listen to customers’ requests — whether they are searching for something red, something smooth or something sweet — and help them choose the right bottle.
“The people that work here are so helpful,” said Long Beach resident Cindy Hamlet. “If you want to try something different, they’re always willing to give it a go and always make great recommendations.”
The rest of the formula for sustaining a successful business, Poulos said, is simple: “It might sound a little corny and old-fashioned, but you’ve got to treat the customer right. [My father] always used to say, ‘You can only fool a customer once,’ and a lot of big business doesn’t understand that.
“Just take care of the customer,” he added. “They’ll be back.”