Cooperstown native brings new spirits to old store

Contributed The renovated interior of Rudy’s Wine & Liquor at 143 Main St. in Cooperstown is shown in this undated photo.

Cooperstown native Matt Denison is bringing the village’s oldest wine and liquor store into a new era.

Denison, 32, together with business partner Joe Festa, 39, purchased Rudy’s Wine & Liquor at 143 Main St. late last year. Built in 1825, the downtown site was a residence until 1887, Denison said. It became a store that year and, in 1965, a liquor store. Fred and Karen Lemister operated it as Rudy’s from 1972, Denison said, through mid-December 2020.

Denison said connection to community and proximity spurred the venture.

“My family is from Cooperstown; my grandparents were teachers in (the village) and my uncle had Ace Hardware, so we’re a very small business-oriented family,” he said. “I had been the general manager … and lead bartender of Alex’s Bistro, right next door, for five years, so I got to know the Lemisters and I lived in the apartment above. Last Memorial Day … Mrs. Lemister approached me and said, ‘What would you think about this as a business?’

“There was no plan for this; it’s just one of those random things,” Denison continued, noting that he went to Pratt Institute for video editing and later worked for People Magazine, handling the publication’s social media. “I never would’ve thought in a million years that I’d be doing this, but I’ve known that store ever since I was a kid.”

Festa, Denison said, moved upstate from New York City and it was through his patronage of the bistro that the two became acquainted. Festa is also the librarian at the Fenimore Art Museum.

After spending January renovating, Denison said, Rudy’s reopened Feb. 1 with a fresh focus.

“Our primary focus right now is lowering our prices by buying in bulk and increasing the more popular, trendy wines and liquors and canned cocktails,” he said. “Those are one of the things we’re pushing, because people can’t go to bars. There’s a lot of different things they’re coming out with — bottled margaritas, Old-Fashioneds, mai tais — and there’s a lot of fun stuff we can do with that, because it’s a totally new market that hasn’t been tapped.”

Rudy’s also offers local delivery services, Denison said.

Clients, Denison said, have been as diverse as the inventory.

“We’re getting (customers from) the surrounding area,” he said. “A lot of people are really curious how the renovations went, because the building hadn’t been renovated since 1965. Our market is all ages, over 21, and it’s people that are buying really expensive bottles of wine and people buying wine on the lower end for cooking. That’s something I love about it: it’s not a market that’s niche.”

Denison said such a response from shoppers and community members has been bolstering.

“It’s been awesome,” he said. “I went to high school in Cooperstown and I’m well connected in the community, then through the bistro I got to know so many locals that I didn’t already know through family. A lot of people are coming in saying they had my grandfather as a teacher or went to high school with my mom, so it’s been a great outpouring of support for us and I’m having a lot of fun doing the social media.”

Denison said he hopes to deepen those ties while increasing and improving Rudy’s visibility.

“I definitely want to be working with Alex’s Bistro next door,” he said. “(Owner Alex Webster) is going to be getting a lot of meats and cheeses in from Europe and the city and I want to get some of that in here and pair it with some wines. Social media is something I’m pretty fluent in and Joe’s really fluent in, so we know the power of it and it’s really underutilized in this area. We’re going to have a TikTok and do wine tastings (on that platform), so there’s a lot of room for us to make more sales.

“We plan to renovate the building to how it used to look in the late 19th century,” Denison continued. “We’re excited to bring it back to its former glory. It just needs some loving, and that’s part of the reason I was so attracted to it. We have so many ideas. We just want to bring more life back to Cooperstown on Main Street. That’s something I care a lot about doing.”

Rudy’s will host a ribbon-cutting ceremony with members of the Cooperstown Chamber of Commerce at 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 18. Customers are welcome after the ceremony.

For more information, find “Rudy’s Wine & Liquor” on Facebook or follow @rudysliquor on Instagram. Rudy’s is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and noon to 8 on Sunday, though Denison said he will expand hours in summer.

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