University of Arizona's local landmark for liquor
Through the rise and fall of local businesses, the construction of towering downtown structures and the rapid expansion of the University of Arizona across the city, a small liquor store stood its ground.
U of A Liquors is a drive-thru liquor store that has sat on the southeast corner of Sixth Street and Park Avenue for the past 42 years, catering a wide selection of wines and beers to the area near the university.
“[U of A] Liquors is a very well known business among [s]tudents,” Naman Patel, a UA freshman pre-business major and the son of the current owner of U of A Liquors, Dharmesh Patel, said in an email. “Being associated with the university and having the name [U of A] Liquors, I believe, gives us sort of a leg up on other competitors in the area.”
According to Gail Tucker, store manager the past 26 years, U of A Liquors was a family-owned business founded in 1977. Thanks to a prime location and a loyal customer base, U of A Liquors has remained in its place while other businesses in the area dispersed.
When Tucker began working at the store, there were no lofty student apartments or high rise buildings. Back then, Tucker said, Sixth Street was a one-way dirt road.
Tucker said other businesses and houses near the store were either bought by the UA, moved locations or went out of business over time.
“It’s sad to see some of the small businesses leave, but it’s good that they’re building more dorms for the students,” Tucker said.
Despite having no affiliation with the university, U of A Liquors has been such a long-standing landmark that the students and families who have frequented it in the past find it just as much a part of campus as anything else, according to Tucker.
Having worked the front counter for so long, Tucker has seen students grow up to have children of their own attending the UA. Some are even excited to find Tucker still manning the register.
“I sometimes get customers I saw a long time ago. Some alumni come in during Homecoming Week or Family Weekend and see me and go, ‘You’re still here!’” Tucker said. “This morning, someone came in looking for a specific beer that they had gotten here some years ago and they recognized me.”
The store seems to have a special place in the hearts of once rowdy college students and teenagers over the years, whose fake identification cards have been pinned to a high wall above the drive-thru window. Tucker said that this trophy wall is meant to serve as a deterrent, and is affectionately called the “Wall of Shame” by the store employees.
“As you can see, [fake identification] is a major issue here,” Tucker said, gesturing to the collection of fake ID cards. “A lot of times, people we’ve carded will come back when they’re 21 and go, ‘Look at that! I’m on the Wall of Shame up there!’”
Part of the appeal has to do with the slew of different store owners, each of which has brought their own charms to the store. Tucker has known all of the owners and was hired by her neighbors and “good friends” Dempsey and Ginger Khoeler.
“At the time, I was cleaning offices at night and [Ginger Khoeler] had health issues, so I helped her clean her house,” Tucker said. “They found out that I know how to use the register because I worked at Circle K years ago. It snowballed from there.”
The Khoelers had a dog that stole the hearts of customers — a German shepherd named Miss Woofus. According to Tucker, Dempsey Khoeler used to bring Miss Woofus to work with him every day.
“Years later, people would still ask about that dog,” Tucker said.
The last owner, Richard Berger, passed away in 2017, but Tucker said she was also very close with him and his family.
“[Berger] had four kids and at various times they all worked here,” Tucker said. “They made a part of their family.”
The store is now under the ownership of Dharmesh Patel, who bought U of A Liquors and other stores from Berger in 2017. When Dharmesh Patel decided it was time to start a business, he found he simply liked liquor stores. After moving to Tucson, Dharmesh Patel met Berger.
“I met [Berger] because he sometimes did wine gatherings or parties,” Dharmesh Patel said. “We were very close for about 20 years.”
Dharmesh Patel owns several other liquor stores around Tucson and got his start in the business after coming to the U.S. from India. His father was in the motel business in India, but the son did not follow in his father’s footsteps.
Both of Dharmesh Patel’s sons, Naman Patel and Dhruv Patel, are currently attending the UA, but Dharmesh Patel’s sons do not seem to want to follow in their father’s footsteps either. Nonetheless, Naman Patel seems to be proud of his dad’s work.
“I do believe that there is a sense of pride behind having your family own such an institution that is a part of the [UA],” Naman Patel said. “It makes me feel even more connected to the [UA] community.”
From UA students and faculty visiting during the semester to the constant neighborhood community year-round, U of A Liquors will likely stay where it is, as long as its customers stay attached to it’s slouchy white walls and faded lettering.
“[Our customers] care a lot,” Tucker said. “One day, I had come into work and someone had thrown a brick at the storefront glass and shattered it. The customers were so mad that someone would break our door. People really love this store.”
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