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Popular NW Liquor Store Falls Silent

Proprietor's Death Saddens Community

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 17, 2005; Page B01

He was behind the cash register virtually every day, bantering about politics and wine, about the latest changes in the neighborhood, and he made his customers feel as though they had a second home there.

Yesterday, their place was closed. Sidney Drazin, 79, died Tuesday at George Washington University Hospital after beginning the morning at Comet Liquors, the shop he owned on Columbia Road NW since 1980, said his wife, Bernice.

At Comet, owner Sidney Drazin sold pastrami sandwiches and bagels and coffee, along with liquor, and set up a table for patrons to chat. (Photos Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

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He was an irascible, pugnacious Adams Morgan institution, selling merlots and chardonnays as well as pastrami sandwiches and bagels and coffee, which his regulars ate as they read the newspaper and yakked away at a long table he set up near the entrance to the store.

As word of Drazin's death spread yesterday, customers stopped at the shuttered shop, where a long-stemmed rose was tucked inside the front door handle, beneath a sign that read, "Ask About Today's Soup." A typed testimonial described the mustachioed, pistol-packing proprietor as the neighborhood's "gallant, old school, crusty champion."

"Sid was the surrogate parent to all the lost souls of Adams Morgan, all the single people who needed a confidence boost," said Max Lockwood, 35, a federal policy analyst who lives nearby.

Lockwood said he spent most weekends at Drazin's table, which over the years transformed the shop into a kind of plastic-chaired neighborhood salon. The topics ranged from the war in Iraq to the Redskins to whether the new Starbucks opening a block away would survive.

"Everyone came," Lockwood said. "You could be a construction worker, a lawyer; there would be a financier. It was the embodiment of democracy."

Drazin's wife, with whom he celebrated their 55th anniversary Saturday, declined to provide details of her husband's death, except to say that it was related to an aneurysm on his abdominal aorta. She said he opened the store Tuesday, then complained to his employees that he didn't feel well. An ambulance took him to GWU Hospital, where he died a few hours later.

"His heart gave out," said his wife, who worked with him in the store several days a week. A funeral is scheduled for 10 a.m. today at Tifereth Israel Congregation on 16th Street NW.

Bernice Drazin said she was unsure of the store's future. "We don't know where we'll go from here," she said. "If we sell, it will be to good people. But there won't be a Comet like there has been."

Sidney Drazin, a native Washingtonian, graduated from Roosevelt Senior High School and served as a clerk in the Navy during World War II. He was injured in the war, his family said, when the Japanese attacked the PT boat to which he was assigned.

After the war, Drazin ran a Bethesda-based printing business before taking over his mother-in-law's liquor store at 14th and Harvard streets NW, where he befriended a broad cross-section of humanity. "I remember going down there as a kid and being the only white face," said Marc Drazin, 46, one of Drazin's three children. "I got to know pimps and thieves and murderers as people. It was an education."

During the 1968 riots that ravaged 14th Street, his son said, Drazin's business was one of few that looters did not destroy. Drazin sold the store in the early 1970s and bought a gas station on 14th and Euclid streets NW, where a survey once found that he sold the region's most expensive gallon of gas. He made no apologies. "No one is gouging anyone," he told a reporter.

He bought Comet, near 18th Street, in 1980. As the neighborhood became more gentrified, he sold more wine than hard liquor and began offering an array of sandwiches, including "The Sidney" -- roast beef topped with Swiss cheese, lettuce and tomato.

He set up the table, his wife said, after undergoing an operation in 1990 and discovering that people wanted to come in and chat while he recuperated in an easy chair. The table became an institution discovered by generations who rolled through the neighborhood.

A recent devotee, Jim Wehmeyer, 46, stopped yesterday to peek in the darkened window. "We moved to the neighborhood not just for the house, but for people of all stripes," he said. "Sid was his own separate stripe. He also had great bagels."

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