Black Business Spotlight: Selby Wine & Spirits

Steve Floyd/MSR News Vernon Crowe

Selby Wine & Spirits — more than merely a store —it’s a fixture in St. Paul’s quietly thriving Selby neighborhood where people are living well and working to get the best out of life. It should be noted that Selby Wine & Spirits is one of the few African American-owned liquor stores in the Twin Cities. Through economic up-swings and downturns, owner-manager Vernon Crowe’s enterprise has been a constant part of the neighborhood for almost two decades. Like a local grocery shop or, for that matter, the church, it’s where you bump into friends, catch up on the latest word and aren’t just a customer, but a familiar welcome face. It’s part of a way of life.

Crowe grew up in the area; he regrets others didn’t stick around to take a stake in helping to maintain the area. “I wish more African Americans [had stayed] and not flee to the suburbs with the education we’ve received and the advantages we’ve received. It would’ve strengthened the community. Leaving doesn’t make us any better of a person. Since slavery we’ve always tried to have communities. That kept us together, because we were torn apart so much. I’m glad I still live [here].”

He has mixed feelings about the very improvements that stabilize the community. There are fewer of the friends and neighbors he grew up with and more ethnically diverse residents, including White. But, it’s a safe place to live, nice locale to raise families. “A lot of gentrification has changed and transformed it. Not a lot of us left, anymore. You won’t see that so much in large cities, but here where the population is smaller, where the percentage is fewer, it [is] important to keep your community together, because that’s where we get our power. What I see, we’re so spread out our [voting] power is less. You don’t even have to do redistricting. We kind of helped with that process, ourselves. We’re losing our communities.”

The influx of crack cocaine from cities like Chicago, Detroit and Gary, Indiana did its damage. Crowe recalls the start of crack cocaine in 1979. “When I saw that stuff start, it was a tragedy.” He added, “What makes it so sad, it was brought in by our government [which] lot of people don’t realize. I was a history major [at University of Wisconsin- River Falls] before I got my business degree at Link University [in Missouri] and I remember things I see. Bush — daddy Bush — was head of the CIA; they were dealing with Noriega at the time. It’s no accident that stuff hit our neighborhoods. They needed money [Congress wouldn’t authorize]. So, that’s how they got it. Off the back of us.”

What prompted him to open Selby Wine & Spirits? “I knew [retailing]. [I] worked with my father in Texas. Managed a store over on Lexington. Remembered, when I was a kid, a liquor store across the street. [This business] filled that niche.” The business often winds up being more of a one-man operation than he’d quite like but, as the saying goes, good help can be hard to find. “Young people,” he reflects with humor, “don’t always understand that having a job means showing up regularly — on time. I’m not picking on them or stereotyping, that’s just the way it is.” Another challenge is that operating the business doesn’t require employees to work a 40-hour week. “I pay my people a little bit more, but being a small shop, I only need part-time help. It’s hard to fit people’s schedules. I do try to work with students around their [classes]. And I try to work around it when an employee also has another job that is full-time and this is their second job. I have to be flexible.” All things considered, he simply does what needs to be done in order to make it work.

Vernon Crowe sums it up: He very much enjoys his livelihood and still likes the neighborhood. “It has changed but, on the other hand, I have a very diverse clientele. A wide range from all economical walks of life.” Times change and living, working in the community, you adapt to go along with the new way of the world.