What the ’Nell is going on?

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Could legendary Red Hook booze baroness LeNell Smothers’s new signature drink be a — gasp! — Manhattan?

“Yes, I’m looking outside of Red Hook — mostly in Lower Manhattan,” said the owner of LeNell’s, Van Brunt Street’s renowned bourbon and wine shop.

Ever since Smothers told The Brooklyn Paper last month that her landlord is reclaiming the space, the rumor mill has been churning over where her esteemed LeNell’s Wine and Spirit Boutique would end up.

But Smothers has had it with all the gossip, so she again turned to The Brooklyn Paper to explain what is really happening with her store. As always, she served it straight up.

“I’m sick and tired of the media misstating what’s going on,” said Smothers. “I’ve been bombarded by press. One [outlet] even had the nerve to print that we are closing. We are not closing down.”

Next summer, when her current five-year lease expires, Smothers must open a new store within 1,000 feet of her current store or she’ll lose the chance to easily transfer her liquor license to the future location.

“I live in Red Hook and want to stay,” she said. But Smothers also wants to open a bar in addition to the liquor store, and is concerned that Red Hook might not generate enough heat. It’s not “Red Hot Red Hook” like so many bulls—t articles would have folks believe,” said Smothers. “There’s just not that many services around like banks and restaurants.”

And that could pose a problem for a fledgling bar.

But local residents are not ready for LeNell to pack up her specialty bourbons and bitters. In only four years, her store has become a community favorite for its kitschy atmosphere, quality stock and service.

“LeNell’s is a neighborhood jewel,” said Georgia Kral, a neighbor. “LeNell really makes you feel at home. It is literally like no other liquor store.”

But finding space is difficult in Red Hook. Most available property consists of “empty lots that owners are sitting on, storefronts that have people living in them or short-term leases,” Smothers said. Other spots are available, but either have “outrageous rent that’s not realistic for Red Hook, or [are] on a side street with no foot traffic.”

Manhattan might provide more foot traffic, but it comes at a premium.

“Retail rent in lower Manhattan is easily double that of Red Hook, especially for a liquor store,” said Solitaire Macfoy of Fillmore Real Estate in Brooklyn Heights.

And finding retail space that will welcome a liquor store — even an upscale one — can be tricky. “It can be a long process to find a space that is not near schools, places of worship and other liquor stores,” said Smothers.

For now, Smothers has a full schedule of events planned for the fall, including an Old Portrero rye tasting, a fourth anniversary party and the Brooklyn Bourbon festival.

LeNell’s Wine and Spirit Boutique (416 Van Brunt St. between Coffey and Van Dyke streets in Red Hook) is open Monday–Saturday, noon–midnight, and Sunday from noon–9 pm. For information, call (718) 360-0838.

Updated 4:31 pm, July 9, 2018
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