Max’s Package Store: a family tradition for 76 years
East Lyme — Max’s Package Store now features a larger-than-life number 76 on its storefront at 329 Flanders Road.
Ever since the liquor store reached its 75th anniversary last year, CEO Alan Wilensky decided he would update the number each year because he knows how rare it is for a business to have such longevity.
Four generations of the Wilensky family have quietly served customers on the property at Flanders Four Corners.
On the grounds of the liquor store once stood a homestead, a general store, a gas station, a liquor store and a barn. The original liquor store was 900 square feet. In 1971, an extension was added to the left and, by 1972, when the rear barn that historically housed chickens, cows and pigeons was absorbed into the store space, the new store footprint swelled to more than 1,200 square feet. In 1993, the store underwent a complete interior renovation.
But Max's stayed open during it all.
Inside the liquor store, exposed wood beams on the ceiling delineate each of the expansions. The uprights in the former barn space are pegged with hand cut nails. Under the barn, four granite columns hold a carrying beam consisting of a single tree’s length. There are saw marks on the barn from the mid-1800s. Each of the quarry rocks in the stone foundation are estimated to weigh more than two tons.
Max: first generation liquor proprietor
Alan Wilensky’s family traced his grandfather Max Wilensky’s path to America from Russia, where he had served as a non-voluntary member of the Russian Army during the Russian Revolution. One day, Wilensky said, he was issued a three-day pass and at that time he deserted, making his way to the shoreline. He boarded a boat to the U.S. in 1918.
His journey brought him to Philadelphia, Montville and then finally to the Flanders section of East Lyme, where he purchased a 4.5-acre parcel of land that spanned the area from Latimer Brook to Boston Poston Road, Flanders Road and the property line next to what is now Flanders Donuts and Bake Shop’s parking lot. This part of East Lyme was mostly farmland at the time.
Max Wilensky established residence in a one level ranch-style home in the spot where the liquor store’s parking lot now sits. In 1920, next to his family’s home on the right side, he opened a general store and one of the very first Texaco gas stations in the country. Alan Wilensky described how the vintage pump was operated using a hand crank to draw one gallon of gas at a time into a glass globe.
Leo: number two
In 1946, Max Wilensky asked his son Leo who had come home from the U.S. Air Force after World War II to open a package store in a building next to the current store. About ten years later, they built a duplex building at the current location half of which served as a general store and the other half a liquor store. Eventually the general store side of the business was sold.
Alan Wilensky recalled coming to work during weekends at the liquor store with his father at eight years old.
“I literally learned the business at his knee,” Alan Wilensky said. One of four siblings, he said that he was the only one who wanted to work at the store. “Nobody else had the passion.”
Wilensky said the liquor industry is very complex.
“It’s so highly legislated,” he said.
To be able to manage the liquor store’s business, he went with his father to Connecticut Package Store Association (CPSA) meetings beginning when he was 13.
Young Alan Wilensky learned about the liquor industry’s specific hours and days of operation, lack of quantity discounts and the minimum mark-up or fair-trade laws that were mandated until 1980. He grew up understanding statutes, the law and lobbying. Once he was in college, he decided to become a management major at Bentley College.
“Always one-on-one,” he said about learning to focus on what individual customers needed.
“It’s not a profitable product. The margins are very small,” Alan Wilensky said about liquor product sales. “It’s how you purchase, not sell, the product.”
He emphasized that selling higher quality products and cultivating a strong customer base was most important. He kept mental notes on what his customers liked, and he suggested other products he thought they might also enjoy.
Working alongside his father until Leo Wilensky retired in 1999, Alan Wilensky managed the liquor store full-time for 35 years and even served as president of the CPSA for seven years when he decided he needed a change.
Liza: fourth generation operations manager
In 2015, when he decided to take his current position as tax collector for the town of Waterford, Alan Wilensky turned over the reins of the family business to his daughter Liza, the second oldest of his four children. He still serves as a consultant.
“I was told I had to come home and try a different angle,” Liza Wilensky, now 30, said about completing college with a degree in equine business management and finding it a challenge to find work in her chosen field.
“It’s real work. It’s not easy,” Liza Wilensky said about having worked part-time at Max’s Package Store throughout her high school and college years. She said her parents wanted her and her siblings to work their first jobs elsewhere before helping at the liquor store because “it’s family, so it’s a little different.”
Although she had a lifelong passion for horses, she said it was her idea to take over as the operations manager of Max’s Package Store. She said she stepped up so her mother Teresa Wilensky, who was already running her own seamstress business, didn’t have to do it. Despite managing a business that is open daily and being on call “24/7,” Liza Wilensky currently owns two horses and still has the time to feed and ride them at show jumping equestrian events.
“It’s still a comfortable space,” she said, referring to working with the same staff members she had as a teen. She appreciates the fun aspects of the business, such as tasting new products before deciding to sell them to customers.
A family liquor store
Michael Feliciano, the liquor store’s business manager who has worked with the Wilensky family for the past 25 years, has known Alan Wilensky since they attended New London High School from 1974-77. He said he started working at Max’s Package Store on a part-time basis and then he said, “next thing you know it grew into a wonderful relationship.”
He believes that Max’s Package Store has endured as an institution because of the business continuity, friendly customer service and its ideal location. He also credits Max’s Package Store with taking pride in its appearance.
“We’re a good size family store. It’s bright and clean,” he said, pointing out the many store windows that give customers the feeling of open space. “They like our selection. We make sure they don’t over buy for an event.”
Feliciano considers the gregarious natures of both Leo and Alan Wilensky and the fact that Alan is “a walking encyclopedia” as contributing factors of the business’s success.
“He knows why the (liquor) laws are the way they are. We do everything the right way; the legal way,” Feliciano added.
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