An important anniversary in the history of the United States came and went last week with barely any notice: the end of Prohibition.
But they noticed at 85-year-old Hodge Liquor, a small, always-family-owned liquor store in Elmwood Village that owes its birth and its very existence to the moment when it became legal to sell and consume alcohol again.
Italian immigrant Anthony Pepe received the license to operate his Elmwood Avenue liquor store on Dec. 5, 1933, the day before Prohibition ended.
The store sits in the heart of the Elmwood Village, a commercial and residential neighborhood bordered by North Street and Forest Avenue, Delaware and Richmond avenues.
“We have a fair amount of long-running businesses, but it’s exceptional to see a successful family-owned small business like Hodge,” said Ashley Smith, executive director of the Elmwood Village Association.
Third-generation owner James Pepe credited his grandfather with the foresight to open the business and the prudence in naming it.
“My grandfather filed for and received one of the oldest post-prohibition licenses in the country," said Pepe, 62. "Coming off Prohibition there was stigma against liquor. He didn’t want the family name on [the store]. Back then there was a different set of moral standards.”
Walk through the doors at Hodge to see the original tin ceiling and an array of family photos that span eight decades. The family expanded the building in the '60s and '70s, said Pepe, but its bones – as well as some of the original display cases – remain. More than 800 varieties of wine line the shelves. Bourbon, too, has a healthy representation, thanks to its discovery by a generation of millennial customers, Pepe said.
Anthony Pepe was a child when he and his family arrived here from southern Italy in the late 1800s. He became a banker who dabbled in real estate and founded Hodge Beverage Corp. at 430 Elmwood Ave. near Hodge Avenue – thus the name – a liquor emporium that remains family owned and in the same location today.
Prohibition came after a widespread temperance movement that spurred the passage of the 18th Amendment and banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating beverages. Prohibition was the law from 1920 to 1933, but it was famously difficult to enforce.
For much of Prohibition, Buffalo’s mayor was the flamboyant Francis X. Schwab, the son of German immigrants and part owner of the old Broadway Brewing Co. Schwab made national headlines when he was charged in 1922 with manufacturing and selling beer at his brewery. Schwab pleaded no contest in a case that was prosecuted by U.S. attorney William J. Donovan.
When Anthony Pepe opened the doors of his store in 1933, the Elmwood District was a “streetcar suburb, built when streetcars took people from where they worked to where they live,” said Clinton Brown, architect and historian. “The 1930s was a transitioning time between the demise of streetcars and the rise of autos and buses.”
As a teenager, James Pepe attended Canisius High School and worked at the shop after school. He had no intention of making the family business his career after graduating from the University at Buffalo – but his family thought otherwise.
“I had just graduated from UB for electrical engineering, and I was about to start a job when the family had a sit-down with me,” Pepe said. “It was in those conditions I made a decision that changed the rest of my life.”
As president of the company, Pepe bought out his two uncles, Alphonse and Pascal, as well as his father Albert's shares in the business.
Over the years, Pepe has tinkered with his business model, such as instituting an open-door policy for canine customers.
“About five years ago we noticed a lot of our customers walking their dogs up and down the avenue. They would leave the dogs tied to parking meters out front,” Pepe said. “That’s not right. It’s not safe for the dogs. Why not let dogs in?”
Like any good host, Pepe offers his four-legged guests a bite to eat: small biscuits stored behind the counter in an empty Bailey’s Irish Crème tin.
“The dogs are better behaved than some of the customers,” Pepe said. “I’ve never had a dog break a bottle. I’ve never had a dog steal anything or make a mess.”
Pepe engages in easy patter and clearly thrives in his daily dealings with customers. He calls his business the “A to Z Store. We serve the entire spectrum,” he said. “I have formed so many relationships with the customers. I know them all by name. You have these talks for 5 or 10 minutes. It’s a social call. They are the glue that held the store together for all these years.”
Businessman Edward Corr, 63, is a regular. He lives in the neighborhood, grew up in North Buffalo and attended Canisius with Pepe. Helene Houston is a second-generation customer who invites Pepe to make her wine selections every time she walks in the store.
“He never fails to pick a good-tasting red wine,” Houston said before leaving the store with a purchase of six bottles carried to her car by the store owner.
Recently the close-knit neighborhood suffered a blow with the relocation of Women & Children’s Hospital to the Medical Campus downtown. Its departure played a role in the exit of at least six other businesses, including longtime restaurant Casa Di Pizza.
Pepe has no intention of selling his building or moving his business. He pointed to his daughter Kim Pepe as the fourth generation of ownership. Kim, 30, has worked at the store for seven years. Like her father, she is looking to carry on a family tradition.
"The neighborhood changing is huge for us, but long-term it will be good for business," said Kim Pepe. “I have a degree in psychology and I thought about getting a master’s degree in counseling, but I really enjoyed working here and getting to know the neighborhood. It’s evolved into a full-time job."
Pepe in turn pronounced 2017 as their best year ever.
“You’re talking to the guy who owns the building,” Pepe said. “I could have sold it many times. We have a legacy, a tradition going that’s important to me. It’s my daughter’s future. Let’s face it. She will be my exit.”