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City Folk

Good Spirits

Mount Vernon shop owner reinvents the old MacGillivray’s Pharmacy with the help of neighbors

Photo: Jenn Ladd, License: N/A

Jenn Ladd

Six months ago, Vicki Schassler carted a leather couch from her house, on Monument Street, to Spirits of Mount Vernon, the wine shop at the corner of Charles and Read streets that she opened in 2005. The couch faces the store’s wine racks; its back faces a 7-foot picture window, which frames the foot traffic outside. Customers often laze on the sofa—either there, or at one of the stools or window seats across the room. Schassler has created a rare hybrid: a liquor store and lounge.

During an interview, Schassler calmly surveys the store from the couch. A couple toting backpacks comes in. Her attention shifts immediately to them. The man pulls a chessboard from his bag and asks if it’s OK to play at one of the tables in the shop. Of course, she replies. Later, she notices a young woman browsing the nearby shelves of liqueurs and cordials. “That’s a great limoncello,” she volunteers. “The lemons come from the northern part of Italy; typically they come from the southern part. It’s very, very flavorful. Probably one of the nicest limoncellos I’ve had.” The woman smiles shyly and winds up purchasing the recommendation.

In the beginning of August, Spirits was granted a license to sell wine by the glass, allowing Schassler to add a tasting room to her fine wine shop. The license, essentially that of a full bar, enables Spirits to open on Sundays, stay open till 2 A.M., and serve all types of alcohol, but Schassler has no plans to make it anything more than a tasting room. “I could never do a restaurant because I don’t know how to cook,” she says, laughing. “I’m just taking it to the next level.”

Ten years ago, Spirits’ corner was occupied by MacGillivray’s Pharmacy. The four-story brick building at 900 N. Charles St. was built circa 1860 in the Second Empire architectural style, like many of the rowhouses in Mount Vernon. Apartments were added to the rear around 1900. A 1924 photo of the storefront, found in UMBC photo archives, shows a window display of Norman Rockwell-illustrated copies of The Saturday Evening Post; the store behind looks well-lit and well-stocked.

But MacGillivray’s didn’t fare so well over time. By the ’70s, it had become one of many cheap-booze and check-cashing stops in “a skid row of liquor outlets,” as Jacques Kelly recalled in a 2011 Sun article. A gun fight broke out on Charles and Read in late July 1999, when police were questioning three people about suspected drug dealing there. The gunfire wounded one man and sprayed bullets into MacGillivray’s neighbor on North Charles, Gampy’s (short for Great American Melting Pot, now Marie Louise Bistro).

In the early aughts, Schassler remembers, the store had “posters all over the windows, all the windows were dark. You couldn’t see in, it wasn’t friendly or warm.” Still, it had its charms. City Paper last made note of the pharmacy in ’99, while praising Maryland’s Best as the best cheap can of beer: “Our favorite place to get it is MacGillivray’s . . . where it goes out the door for $2.09 a sixer (tax included). You can find it stocked by the pallet-load, and it seems to go fast.”

In 2003, the MacGillivray building, which had started to lean toward the street, was threatened with demolition. Instead, it was auctioned off by the building’s owners. “There was concern that it was going to be taken down and turned into a parking lot,” Schassler remembers. One of the prospective buyers was Kingdon Gould III, president of Parking Management, Inc—or PMI, a name recognizable to anyone who has given up on trying to find a street parking in Baltimore or DC. At the time, Gould owned the then shut-down Gampy’s building, a lot next door to Gampy’s, as well as the house behind MacGillivray’s. The dilapidated pharmacy seemed primed for paving.

What happened next is a testimony to the “real neighborhood” spirit that Schassler says drew her to Mount Vernon. In the space of 10 days, Midtown Development Corporation, a nonprofit which helps secure financial assistance for homeowners and renovators in Midtown communities, organized a group of 18 merchants and residents, including Schassler, to purchase the MacGillivray building at auction. Initially the group, which had raised more than $200,000, intended to only purchase the apartment side of the building, leaving the liquor store to another buyer. But a third, mystery bidder—described in articles about the auction as “the man on a cell phone”—seemed poised to buy the entire building out from both the Midtown group and Gould. When the auction price had risen to $575,000, Charles B. Duff Jr., executive director of the nonprofit Midtown Development Corp, hesitated to bid any higher. But at the last minute he conferred with Gould, who presumably agreed to kick in an unspecified amount to the Midtown group’s bid; with a handshake agreement in place, Duff placed the winning bid, $600,000, for the pharmacy and the apartments. With the help of tax credits, an Inner-City Ventures Fund loan for $225,000, and a $60,000 grant from the National Trust and HGTV, the MacGillivray’s building would be fully restored.

It was after the auction that Schassler and another investor proposed an upscale wine shop to take the place of the pharmacy. At the time, in 2004, she had never worked in retail, never so much as rung a register before. She spent 15 years working for Marriott International in human resources, working her way up to director of the department.

“I was a problem-solver,” she says. “People not getting along, people doing things in the workplace that they shouldn’t. Sometimes it just boiled down to a lack of communication: you had to go in and make the environment a better place to be by getting to the bottom of things.” She comments quickly on the irony of her current position. “I used to fire people for drinking on the job. Now it’s all I do.”

Tired of working for others, Schassler left her corporate job to refurbish the pharmacy and open her shop. She had only been living in Mount Vernon since 2002, after a 20-year stay in D.C., but her neighbors pitched in. Mount Vernon denizens, she says affectionately, are “very particular about making sure that, when you do a renovation, you do it properly, that you’re going to take care of your house . . . They’re here to help you. I’ve never felt such an outpouring of support in my life.”

Schassler glows when talking about Mount Vernon (“You’re never alone here,” she says), so it’s fitting that she has contributed to its revitalization. Certainly, the corner of Charles and Read has come a long way from its MacGillivray’s days. She says Spirits’ opening helped in part to encourage Marie Louise to set up shop next door, in 2007. She attributes the store’s success to the community’s support, noting that she has many regulars.

But Schassler’s warmth converts first-time customers into repeats; her human resources background is evident in every interaction. Midway through her interview, an employee comes over and indicates a man by the counter. The employee holds a wine kit, complete with an opener, an aerator, and other oenophile gadgets, and asks the price of the unmarked kit. Schassler asks if the box contains everything pictured, but quickly says aloud, “You know what, I’m feeling good about this, aren’t you?” to the man standing across the room. She lets him have it for $15. She admits the kit is worth more. “I didn’t want to make him wait for me to figure out the price. It’s about customer service. You want them to have a good experience.”

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