White light melted the black ice on the concrete outside the entrance of Chapel West Wine & Liquor. It was the morning after the first snow in New Haven, and the city streets had sobered up from the novelty of the previous night. Inside the store, owner Shital Patel prepared for her Friday afternoon delivery. For the past three years, she has operated the liquor store situated on the corner of Chapel and Park Streets, a space where Yale’s campus and New Haven intersect.
Patel unpacked cans of Natural Light into a refrigerator that doubled the size of her small frame. In her bulky snow boots, dark jeans and black fleece, she looked serious and practical against the neon liquor labels and peppy hum of Top 40 hits that fill her small store. There was much work to be done in the following hour. Her employee couldn’t come in the night before because of the storm, so Patel had catching up to do before the delivery. But she was not panicked. She worked peacefully, methodically unpacking wine bottles, rearranging labeling on the shelves, sorting and stacking brown paper bags. Each movement was lived-in.
“My parents ran a mechanics business in India,” she told me, as she closed the glass doors of the refrigerator. “Business is in my blood.”
When Patel was 17, she moved to Hamden from Mumbai, India. She learned to speak English by working in a McDonald’s and watching the news. She told me that, at first, she was afraid. She was nervous and quiet and young, far different from the woman she is now.
After McDonald’s, Patel worked in gas stations and helped her husband with his jobs here and there. Three years ago, the man who owned Chapel West retired after working there for over 30 years. He sold the store to Patel, and for the first time, she worked for herself. She had never studied business and had no previous experience running one of her own. For Patel, buying the Chapel West was an exercise in trusting herself.
“I own the store,” Patel said. “And I learn from that.”
The door beeped, and a middle-aged man waddled in. He spent a minute stomping the ice and slush off of his black Timberlands and then moved toward the counter and smiled at Patel. She smiled back at him, and he cracked a joke, and they laughed together. The man laid a fistful of coins on the counter, and Patel asked him what he wanted. She grabbed a couple of 50-milliliter bottles of vodka from an arrangement next to the cash register and laid them on the counter before him. The man looked down at his coins again.
“I’ll give it to you Sunday,” he said. Patel nodded. The man left.
Patel returned to her spot in front of me and resumed dusting and sorting bottles.
“He missed 15 cents. Because, [at] the end of the month, they’re broke.”
She explained to me that this was not a unique incident. Patel has several customers who cannot always pay for their purchases in full, so she sells to them based on an honor system.
“I know they’ll come back.” She continued cleaning the bottles with an exercised calm. Her store is a space of trust.
Last year in late January, a man burgled Chapel West Wine & Liquor. Patel told me that he smashed the door in the night with a brick and stole a bottle or two of wine. “And that’s it,” she said. “No cash.” The value was about fifty or one hundred dollars. I asked her if she knew who did it, and she told me that it was the same man that has broken into a couple of other liquor stores nearby. When Patel speaks of him, she calls him a “neighbor.” Even though he has violated her atmosphere of trust, she recognizes him as a member of the community that exists within the walls of her store, within the city lines of New Haven.
The door beeped again, and another man entered. He was thin, wearing glasses and loafers, wet with slush. He looked about 25, maybe younger. Before he bought two 50-milliliter bottles of liquor, Patel asked for his ID. She inspected it, returned it and completed the transaction. Typically, Patel asks for two forms of ID when a young person buys alcohol in her store: Yale ID and state ID. There are state regulations that allow Patel’s trust to stretch only so far within the walls of her small store.
“I make less money, but it’s safe. It’s peace of mind, you know.”
If Patel is caught selling to an underaged person three times, her liquor license will be revoked, and for a period of time, her store will have to close. I ask her what happens when a student gives her a fake ID.
“By law, I can take it [away]. The trouble is on me too. I lose my business.”
To give Patel a fake ID is to threaten the business she has made for herself, to threaten the system of trust she has made for her customers. Still, Patel loves the students that come into her store. They are nice, she told me, and in the summer months and over winter break, business is slow without them.
After a couple of hours, a woman came into the store. She and Patel chatted about Thanksgiving. It is one of the three days in the year that Patel’s store closes.
“It’s hard work for a woman,” Patel said of all the cooking on Thanksgiving, and her customer agreed. They laughed, she bought a small bottle and then left. It was the first female customer that had entered the store in the previous two hours. Until that moment, I had seen only men in Patel’s store. They bought cans of beer, 11 miniature bottles of Fireball and the occasional handle. While I was with her, two different men came in twice in the same hour. Chapel West Wine & Liquor is a space dominated by men but operated by a woman. I asked her many times if this reality makes her feel uncomfortable, but always, she said no.
“I never feel unsafe here in my mornings alone,” Patel said, pointing out the multiple video cameras secured to different corners of her store. “Men and women both come through. I have all different types of customers.”
High above her perch behind the counter, a glass evil eye ornament is pinned to the sky-blue walls. When I asked her about it, Patel told me that one of her husband’s friends gave it to her when she purchased the store, to keep away the bad.