Liquor Dealer Puts Spirit Into Work

by Susan Adler Thorpe
Commercial Appeal, November 1989

Although Romulus Hammond III stocks 4,200 labels of wine and 1,800 labels of whisky in 8,000 square feet of space, he likes to keep things simple.

Rather than go the high-tech route and computerize his liquor and wine business, Hammond keeps up with his massive inventory the way he always has done it in his head.

"If I had a computer keeping track of 6,000 items, it would take me a week to go over a print-out and figure out what I've got," said Hammond, owner of Buster's Liquors & Wines. "This way, I can walk through my store in an hour and instinctively know what to order."

Hammond must be doing something right. Recently, a special issue of Market Watch, a trade magazine, named Buster's one of the nation's 14 leading liquor and wine stores during 1989. The magazine cited companies based on their dominance of smaller markets.

After 25 years in the liquor and wine business, Hammond, 49, heads one of the largest liquor and wine stores in the Tennessee. According to his calculations, Buster's retail sales volume should top the $6 million mark next year.

While Hammond can reel off wine labels and vintage years without effort, he only knows his wines by name, not by taste.

"It would be virtually impossible for me to taste every wine in this store. I'd be old and in my grave before I could do it," said Hammond. "But between myself and four or five others who work with me in the store, we have come pretty&close to tasting them all."

Of his 25 employees, five know as much about Buster's wine stock as Hammonddoes. That knowledge is critical to Buster's business, now in the early part of the lucrative holiday season. According to Hammond, Christmas Eve rings in Buster's biggest daily volume of the year followed by the day before Christmas Eve and then the day before that.

"Based on last years totals, which we figured from cash register receipts, we rang out an average of 4½ customers per minute for 15 solid hours. That computes to about 4,000 customers," said Hammond. "That's by far our biggest day of the year. There's no reason to believe we wont do better than that this year."

Hammond said he went into the liquor business for lack of anything better to do. After his discharge form the army, Hammond had decided not to go back to college when he learned that his father, R.M. "Buster" Hammond Jr., was asked to open a liquor store in the Sterick Building downtown. Since his father already operated a liquor store on Bellevue at Kerr, Hammond volunteered for the job.

"I didn't have anything else to do, so I went J.R. Hyde Jr., a family friend, and borrowed $45,000 from him just on a handshake," said Hammond, who used the money to open Sterick Liquors in 1965.

Two years later, when the city repealed a 1951 ordinance prohibiting liquor stores from opening east of the Parkways - the city's old liquor line - Hammond started making plans to close Sterick Liquors and move his liquor store the southeast corner of Poplar and Highland.

"I decided if there ever was going to be a super liquor store in Memphis, it was going to be on this spot," said Hammond. "I guessed right."

Since opening Buster's in 1970, Hammond has expanded his store's square footage four times and will expand once again in mid-January when he takes on another 2,600 square feet of retail space. While Hammond watched his sales volume grow through the years, he also saw the volume of wine sales spiral upward.

Although the majority of his sales still come from whisky and cordials, Hammondsaid wine sales now make up 45 percent of total sales and that percentage is growing.

The trend pleases Hammond, who said selling wine is his favorite part of the business.

"There's nothing to know about whisky. Whisky is whisky, vodka is vodka, but wines are different. Every year there is a different vintage, and no two bottles out there are the same," said Hammond.

"For example, I've got in stock 10 different years of Chateau Lafite. Every year is going to be different."

According to Hammond, local wholesalers bring in about a dozen new labels of wine or champagne each week.

"Buster's will carry anything new that comes to this market, and that helps make us successful," said Hammond, noting that Buster's has on average about $500,000 invested in its inventory at any one time.

"We've got a mind-boggling selection of wine. I buy in tremendous volume, and that allows us to be as competitive in price as anyone in the city."

"Everybody probably could have the same volume as I do if they wanted to tie up that much money to do it."

During his years as a liquor and wine dealer, Hammonds success has not gone unnoticed by the liquor industry as the recent mention in the trade journal highlights.

Hammonds business doesn't go unnoticed by the Tennessee Alcohol and Beverage Commission. Earlier this month, the commission levied a $200 fine against the store for advertising a free fifth of Bloody Mary mix with every purchase of Stoli vodka.

"They (commission) told me I can't give away the mix. I have to sell it. From now on I guess I'll just charge customers a penny for it," said Hammond. "We've got a lot of antiquated laws on the books, and try to live with them. A lot of times, though, I don't realize I'm breaking a law, but I'll sure find out when I do."

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