A story in yesterday's edition of The Post incorrectly identified the chief buyer for Central Liquor, at 518 9th St. NW. Herman Cohen, general manager and vice president of the store, oversees the buying of its wines and liquors.
Cylindrical and metallic, it looks like a miniature air-conditioning duct as it winds its carefully camouflaged way in among the cashiers and clerks and up through the second- and third-floor stockrooms, past thousands upon thousands of cases of fruity liqueurs, dry gins, bonded bourbons, feather-light scotches, exalted wines and lowly beers.
At the end of its journey, it plunges through two brick walls into the building next door. It is Central Liquor's own private money tube, bearing bills and coins from three main cash registers all the way to a very solid, secure building at the corner of 9th and F Streets NW - the Riggs National Bank.
Traffic inside the money tube is bumper-to-bumper during this holiday season, when Central can only be described - no offense intended - as a zoo. A friendly zoo, but a zoo nonetheless. Despite an unprepossessing exterior on a street that is home to a string of adult bookstores and the Gayety Burlesk House, Central is is the third-largest volume liquor store in the country, says principal owner Niel Rothberg, "and when you say the country, that means the world."
Currently there are upwards of 180,000 bottles of booze on the premises, says Rothberg, plus another 200,000 in warehouses or waiting to be unloaded on the Baltimore docks. The dock figure is unusually high these days, due to the lingering effects of a recent nationwide dock strike.
Central gradually has become its own wholesaler for most products, says buyer Lenny Shapiro, and the store takes credit for introducing Washingtonians' gullets to several well-known brands of liquor - Beefeaters and Kentucky Gentleman, among others.
Out-of-state tour buses frequently stop at Central between visits to the city's more historic monuments, and out-of-state liquor tax inspectors have been known to stake out the parking lot across the street, sometimes following volume buyers as far as the Pennsylvania line before switching on lights and sirens, and seizing large quantities of contraband. Washington liquor prices, and Central's in particular, are considerably lower than the average for the northeastern United States.
The first rule of thumb for the novice customer is "Keep moving!" He who tries to stand still sooner or later will be bowled over by aggressive fellow customers, or by handtruck-armed employees shouting "Watch your back, please!"
There are not any lines, strictly speaking - just polite mobs that coalesce in the general vicinity of the sales clerks.
"All right, who in here wants me to take their money?" comes the booming voice of one young clerk, who has found himself unengaged for a miraculous moment.
There is the sound of glass breaking - a good, loud, sustained crash. "Watch your feet!" says general manager David Allex matter-of-factly, while a distraught female customer fights back tears. "I broke the bottle," she says plaintively. Allex tells her not to worry - another dozen or so bottles will meet the same fate before the day is through.
At a pivotal point in the operation Walter Russell shouts orders by intercom to the various stockrooms and unloads goods from the conveyor belt that runs along the north side of the store. "He's like the center on the offensive line of a football team," says Rothberg. "Who's the center for the Redskins?"
"Len Hauss," says a helpful visitor.
"Len Hauss," says Rothberg, and, turning toward Russell, "You're another Hauss."
Russell grins uncertainly. "Another horse?" he says.
All this football talk reminds Rothberg to fetch a copy of "I'd Rather Be Wright," the memoirs of offensive tackle steve Wright who, asked what he would miss most about Washington after being traded away from the Redskins, unhesitatingly answered, "Central Liquors!"
An opinion survey could do worse than go to Central in search of a varied assortment of Washingtonians. (The only obviously under-represented group is teetotalers.) Waiting for one clerk, for instance, is Barbara Russe, reporter for the Capitol Energy Letter, who is buying two bottle of house-brand champagne, a half gallon of rum, and a Bolla gift set of wine miniatures."If someone drops over, I want to be ready," says Russo.
Behind her is Natyas Hunyadi, a surgeon at Jefferson Memorial Hospital in Alexandria. "Hunyadi left his native Hungary in 1956 - "not because I was in trouble but because the border was open," he says - and it took him nearly 20 years to be recertified as a surgeon in the United States. He is buying 12 bottles of Hungarian wine, for a total tab of $57-and-change. "It's gift for two friends," he says.
Glenda Gordon, an attorney with the Department of Justice, has just returned from San Diego, where she worked on the Mexican-American prisoner exchange. She is buying a bottle of Amaretto - almond liquer - as a Christmas present for her secretary ($6.39, tax included).
A tall, bearded D.C. government official says he "just stopped in to pick up a couple of bottles of wine for no special reason." He won't give his name - "I'm on an unauthorized lunch hour," he says - but he offers qualified praise for the store. "Even though its like a supermarket . . . they treat people pretty fair," he says.
A one-armed man wearing a plaid knit cap suddenly comes charging down the aisle singing "Noel, Noel," but he is largely ignored by the surrounding masses.
Up above the commotion, Herb Rothberg grabs a cup of coffee in his tiny office, which resembles an airplane cockpit spilling over with paperwork. The office used to be considerably bigger, he explains, before it was shaved down to make way for an expanded German wine section.
Rothberg, whose father David started the store in 1936, will not reveal the level of his annual gross receipts, but says "it's been booted about it's somewhere around $15 million." Inside the store's two narrow buildings - a street-level wall that once divided them has been razed to create a single wide shopping area - Central employs a permanent staff of 80.
"There's practically no shoplifting at all," says Rothberg heaping praise on his customers and running through a list of celebrities past and present who have made frequent appearances at Central.
Terry and Paul Phipps, meanwhile, are about to spend $66.84 for a case of Lowenbrau, a bottle of Amaretto, serveral bottle of Aberloux Glenlivet scotch, several of Rothschild champagne, and one bottle of "Mezcal con Gusano with agave worm."
"It's Tequila," says Paul Phipps, and sure enough, down at the bottom of the bottle is a tiny red crawling creature - the agave worm, as advertised.