Family background – Lebanese roots sown in Berkshire soil

To understand Jim Nejaime’s success as the owner of SPIRITS Wines in Lenox, you need to know some family history. For example, the fact that his mother (Marilyn), an American citizen of Lebanese descent, went to visit Lebanon in the mid-1950s, fell in love and got married. And, more significantly, that she convinced her husband (Nabih Nejaime) to come back to the United States with her to make a life together.

They emigrated in 1955, settling in Torrington, Connecticut, where her father owned a grocery store. Nejaime, who studied restaurant and hotel management in Beirut, helped run this store and teamed up with a cousin to run his own store in nearby Harwinton. In 1962 his life took an unexpected turn when, on his way to visit his sister in North Adams, he stumbled upon a market for sale on Main Street in Stockbridge and made an offer. His first move as owner was to change the name of Stockbridge Market to “Nejaime’s Stockbridge Shop”.

An iconic painting and a name made famous

Norman Rockwell and his wife Molly lived around the corner from the market. They made a habit of cycling to the store to buy the Lebanese food they had come to love – so often, in fact, that they became great friends with Nabih and Marilyn. Based on their mutual respect and affection, Rockwell added the name “Nejaime’s Stockbridge Shop” above the market in its iconic House for Christmas (Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas) painting after sending it to McCall’s, then resubmitted it to the magazine. (The original eight-foot-long painting is on display at the nearby Norman Rockwell Museum.) The illustration was published by the magazine in December 1967, bringing fame to both the painting and the Nejaime surname.

The part of Norman Rockwell’s painting “Home for Christmas” which shows Nejaime’s Stockbridge Shop. Image courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Museum

“We grew up working in the grocery store,” explains Jim Nejaime. “In 1970 Dad bought a wine shop on the corner of Elm Street, but eight years later it wasn’t making any money, so he planned to sell it.” These discussions and plans prompted Nejaime to leave Boston and a desk job in finance to come to the Berkshires to run the wine store.

“My roommates and I have always had a passion for wines,” he says, “and I took advanced courses after college to learn more about the art of wine making.” These courses soon paid off. Shortly after (1980), his brother Joe left Florida and they opened two more wine shops together, one in Lenox Village in 1982 and the other (the future “SPIRITED” business) in 1988 on Route 7 They started importing wines from artisanal wineries in France, Italy and Spain, and the business took off.

Sever business ties to keep family ties

Jim and Joe Nejaime enjoyed being business partners for 33 years, running three stores together (one in Stockbridge and two in Lenox). In 2012, in anticipation of some of their adult children joining the business, they decided to make a change to avoid family disputes over who owned what later on. “Joe kept the two wine shops in the center of the village of Nejaime (in Stockbridge and Lenox) and I took the wine shop ‘SPIRITED’ on Route 7,” Jim said evenly. The move has helped them remain close family allies and avoid any issues with second-generation professional roles. Also, the “real estate realities” made independence advantageous for each of the brothers.

Coherent mission

When asked how he defines success, Jim doesn’t hesitate. “Having a business that we can be proud of is financially successful and employs a number of people on a paid basis while providing our customers with great wines, food and spirits that enhance their lives,” he replies. “We feel fortunate that 99.9% of our sales are not to people with addiction issues, but rather to customers who appreciate what we add to their lives, people who love our business and thank us. .” He also feels lucky that Massachusetts (unlike Connecticut and New York) allows alcohol and food to be sold together, allowing him to sell deli sandwiches, all the ingredients for a rich charcuterie platter locally. , and the Lebanese specialties once appreciated by the Rockwells.

In addition to wine, beer and spirits, SPIRITED offers artisan cheeses, gourmet foods, gift baskets and paninis. Photo courtesy of SPIRITED Wines

He adds that running a successful business is all about relationships – something Jim is good at building and nurturing (he is currently chairman of the membership committee at Stockbridge Golf Club). To illustrate how far his reach extends, he shares this anecdote: “A long-time Boston-area client told me the other day that he was at a conference with another doctor who asked him where he bought his wine. “I have a little store in West Mass,” he told his friend, only to find they had both been shopping at SPIRITED for years! These kinds of conversations are what allow the business to thrive.

Pandemic and recession proof business

You don’t need to remember New Yorker caricatures to recall how surprising the rise in alcohol sales was during the first two years of the pandemic. Liquor store sales jumped to $41.9 billion from March to September 2020, a 20% increase from the same period in 2019, according to a study by the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. that foodservice retail sales fell 15% from pre-COVID -19 levels in September 2020, beer, wine and spirits sales increased 17% and remained at that level during the pandemic.

“The truism that people buy alcohol in good times and bad remains true,” says Nejaime. “For us, the pandemic has been a time that has been extremely beneficial commercially, given that it was such a difficult time for people in general. Because the government deemed us essential (like grocery stores), we didn’t experience the disruption of other businesses that had to close.

In fact, with everyone staying or working from home and the huge influx of people moving to the area, it was difficult to keep up with demand. His staff of 20 felt exhausted, so he shortened store hours to weather the peak of the pandemic. Even now, with talk of the recession filling the airwaves, business remains strong. “Although we are more of a discretionary buy when interest rates are up and markets are down, there hasn’t been much fluctuation in wine and spirits prices, compared to the rise in groceries and catering,” says Nejaime.

There were, however, two downsides to running your business during the pandemic. First, Nejaime couldn’t hold his usual weekly in-person wine tastings at the store, although he did manage to hold virtual tastings, offering the same industry expertise, special sales and valuable recommendations.

Second, with international travel halted, he was forced to take a break from his biannual trips to major wine regions around the world, including visits to wineries they imported directly to the United States. His last trip was at the end of 2019 when he visited wine regions in the Rhone Valley, Provence and southern France. Nejaime plans to resume these wine trips in early 2023 with a trip to northern Italy. Although he is used to traveling for longer stays, he now plans to keep his trips relatively short (five to seven days) and stick to one country.

Livio Voghera: Winemaker/Owner Livio Voghera and Jim Nejaime at the L. Voghera winery in Nieve, Barbaresco, Italy. Photo by Vittorio Zoppi

“Make new friends, keep old ones”

How does Nejaime attract new customers and retain old ones? Well for starters, SPIRITED is in a great location a short distance from Price Chopper/Market 32 ​​and Guido’s on a busy stretch of Route 7. Although not a village Picturesque, the Holmes Road intersection is easy to find and offers plenty of free parking. Jim is also good friends with all the local business owners. “Most of our customer base grows organically,” he says.

Then there are the free weekly wine tastings held at the store (usually on Saturdays), with in-person visits from winemakers from France, Italy, Spain and California. Recent in-store tastings featured Tuscan winemaker Roberto Stucchi of Badia A Coltibuono Winery, who showcased six wines, ranging from a Sangiovese (on sale for $11.99) to a “super Tuscan” Montebello (on sale for $49.99), and wine rep Cat Anderson, who featured Small Estate Spanish Wine Gems (all for sale). In Nejaime’s opinion, the most memorable wine tasting to date was the Giant Tent Tasting, last held in 2019, featuring over 80 selected wines and producing huge sales.

Tuscan winemaker Roberto Stucchi and Jim Nejaime at a recent in-store wine tasting. Photo by Robbi Hartt

Nejaime also hosts wine tastings, seminars and paired dinners offsite, at restaurants such as Wheatleigh, Alta, Haven and Bistro Zinc (all in Lenox), Mazzeo’s in Pittsfield, Cafe Adam in Great Barrington and Old Inn on the Green. in New Malboro. “The ‘great match’ of experience, special events and client relationships makes the job even more satisfying,” says Nejaime.

Although most businesses struggle to attract more customers, this hasn’t been a problem for Nejaime. “We find our best source is word of mouth, customer to customer,” he notes. Social media also helps (SPIRITED has nearly 2,500 followers on Facebook and 1,082 followers on Instagram). Finally, there is the exceptional service from the seasoned staff. “When you visit the store, the atmosphere is welcoming and helpful – employees note your purchases and preferences and invite you to be on our mailing list, so we can follow up on special offers,” says Nejaime. Customers can also register on the website to keep up to date with upcoming events and other offers.

Succession plan?

“We are happy with the way things are going, we are growing our business by retaining our customers and gaining new customers through word of mouth,” says Nejaime, adding that they have no plans for physical expansion. . “We will maintain our unique location and continue to provide the personalized attention and service that our customers have come to expect.” When asked if his daughters had expressed interest in taking over the shop next door, he replied, “At the moment, all three of them are very successful and happy in their own careers, and I’m happy to keep doing what I love to do. Greet!”

Elisha A. Tilghman