Even in a town known for history, Leary’s Fine Wines & Spirits in Newburyport stands out. Operating continuously in the same space since 1897, it is likely the oldest package store in Massachusetts. But the building’s connection to booze dates back even further, as owner Todd Baltich has been interested to discover.
“I think it’s fascinating,” says Baltich, who bought the shop in 2004 and has been digging into its past ever since. Constructed in 1876, the building originally served as a bonded warehouse to store products from Caldwell’s Rum Distillery just across the street. A couple of decades later, Cornelius Leary bought the building to house his ale, wine, and spirits business.
“People used to come down here with buckets and pails to get their beer and rum,” Baltich says, adding that for those further afield, deliveries were made by horse-drawn carriage. Enlargements of photographs from that era decorate the entry to Leary’s, showing carriages lined up in front of the shop on Merrimac Street loaded down with barrels and cases of bottles, as well as the quick progression a scant 15 years or so later to Model T delivery trucks. These days, in homage to those original vehicles, customers can admire Baltich’s Ford Model A, circa 1929, which is parked outside when the weather is good and occasionally tools around town making special deliveries.
While the store became an important part of the local community for gathering and gossip, as well as libations, the moneymaker of the business quickly became the company’s bottling line, says Mary Leary, whose husband, Jack, inherited Leary’s from his father in 1958 at the tender age of 28, after the elder Leary died suddenly.
“The soft drink business grew quickly after the Great Depression,” Mary Leary says, noting that at one time Leary’s held the Coca-Cola franchise from southern Maine down to Ipswich, all along the coast, as well as bottling its own sodas, including a legendary root beer.
It was that soda-bottling business, including the license acquired from Coke in 1916, that kept Leary’s afloat during Prohibition—and very, very busy. “It got so big, it was a lot to call a family business,” Leary recalls, noting that once Prohibition was lifted, Leary’s got back into the alcohol game, becoming the first package store in the state to get relicensed. She recently discovered the paperwork for that while clearing out some old boxes—and plans to pass it along to Baltich, who has become a repository of Leary’s memorabilia.
“I’m delighted that he has taken an interest in the history,” Leary says, noting that she and her husband sold the business in 1981. While letting go of an enterprise that had been in the family for three generations was difficult, Leary says she and her husband realized that passing it along to their kids wasn’t a great idea. “We had six bright children,” Leary says. “With all their different personalities, it just wouldn’t have worked.”
For his part, Baltich is happy to collect and display mementos of his shop’s storied past, from the photos collected from the Learys and their former employees to old Leary’s soda bottles that people find at flea markets or in their basements.
“It differentiates the shop,” Baltich says. History isn’t the only thing that sets Leary’s apart, though; in Newburyport and at his second location in Amesbury, Baltich offers a broad selection of beer, wine, and spirits, including some hard-to-find spirits and a lot of local craft brews.
And what goes great with craft beer? Pizza. In an effort to offer more than just drinks, Baltich has been expanding his offerings over the last few years to include comestibles that go well with wine and beer. His first step was to reorganize his space to accommodate a takeout/delivery outpost of OTTO, the acclaimed Portland, Maine-based–pizzeria. Now Newburyport area customers can get a pie delivered with their alcohol. To whet appetites, the Leary’s website suggests wine pairings for some of OTTO’s unique pies. For example, try the White Bean, Sausage, Herb & Chili Flake pie with a Flaio Negroamaro or the Dante Robino Malbec.
“I always thought the space was large enough to do something in addition to alcohol,” Baltich says. But even after adding the pizzeria along one wall, there was still room to grow. So, last year he added a counter featuring a gourmet selection of cheeses, pâtés, and sausages. The staff is happy to suggest pairings throughout the store, for everything from OTTO’s Meatloaf, Mashed Potato & Herb pizza to a Jasper Hill Farms washed-rind cheese.
“I am trying to create an experience,” Baltich says—and perhaps laying the groundwork for the next 120 years.
Leary’s Fine Wines & Spirits
202 Merrimac St., Newburyport