Words by: Matthew Bray Heather
Amidst the crooked cache of strip clubs, sex shops, clip joints and cabarets in London's Soho you will find the quirkiest destination drink shop on the planet. The man responsible for it remains an unsung hero of the drinks world and yet the deeper you dig the more surprised you'll be to discover how many industry big boys owe an aspect of their own career accomplishments to him. He made his mark in the drinks world by creating a business that brought people together over a love of wines and spirits during a time of tremendous cultural and economic change. In doing so he altered the way people perceived off licences by founding one that would be as successful and fun to be in as any bar could ever hope to be. Michael Kyprianou is the man responsible for Gerry's and this is his story.
Mr. Kyprianou came to England from Cyprus in 1960 when he was just fifteen years old and thanks to a few family connections he walked straight into a job at the infamous off license Delmonicos. The shop was at the time the number one destination in the U.K for the most unusual wines, spirits and liqueurs that simply couldn't be found anywhere else. The business itself was situated at number 64 Old Compton Street but Michael started off around the corner in their Dean Street building. His first job was bottling and labelling wine from barrels that were bought in from all around the world especially for Delmonicos such as the questionably named 'Algerian Burgundy' which, along with French, Spanish, Australian and Italian, 'Delmonico branded' wine became hugely popular with the local customers.
The shops founder was a man of Swiss/Italian descent named John Delmonico who ran the shop with his two sons John and David, his daughter Margaret and his elderly Grandfather Mr.D.Delmonico (whose face appeared on the labels of Delmonicos range of own brand spirits and wines). Michael, along with a seventeen strong Cypriot workforce stayed with them for a full decade until the business was finally sold in 1972 to couple Erving and Penina Bernard. He decided to continue working as a manager for the new owners up until 1984 when he eventually left (much to the gracious Perninas dismay) for personal reasons of indifference towards Erving's treatment of his loyal staff.
Despite Mr Bernard's lovely wife literally begging him to stay for many months, Michael remained steadfast with regards to his decision and knew that it was time to make his own mark upon the world. He was by then known and loved by all of Delmonico's customers, many of which came in just as much for his hospitality as they did for the drinks, and it was during this early period of his career that he was unknowingly paving the road towards his own success.
A local club owner named Frank Spiteri had come to know Michael very well over the years and recognising the entrepreneurial streak in him, agreed to back Michael's dream of creating a truly great and seriously lucrative west end off license. Thus, alongside his friend from Delmonicos, Gerry Coen, and with the financial backing of Frank, Michael began to plan a new and improved emporium of hard to find drinks with the fun loving family feel that Delmonicos had previously had under it's original owners. Soon after this, the fickle hand of fate played a hand and a fitting premises presented itself at number 74 Old Compton Street and within a short space of time the license was signed, sealed and delivered and Michael's vision finally became a reality.
The following winter was spent building shelving units and converting the shop and basement into the establishment we all know and love today. Michael would spend a large part of his days outside the front of the shop so his friends would know that he would be at the helm of the soon to be opening 'Gerry's and Michael's Wines And Spirits' which Michael felt to be far too much of a mouthful and so it was that it became known simply as 'Gerry's'.
Customer loyalty and demand is the foundation upon which any business thrives, but suppliers it seemed would prove a little harder to come by due to Delmonicos threatening to cut ties with them if they supplied drinks to Gerrys. As if this one-sided feud wasn't bitter enough, in order to add salt to the wound Erving Bernard made the ridiculous decision that Michael (who had been a loyal member of his staff for almost twelve years) was no longer welcome at Delmonicos. Michael, who was on all accounts quite hurt by this jaded play, decided to make lemonades from the lemons he'd been handed and eventually the bad form on Erving's part proved to work to Gerry, Michael and Frank's favour as customers proved that they were to remain as loyal to Michael as they would to their favourite brands of booze.
Thus deals were set in place with a few suppliers who were willing to support the new business and her Majestys Customs and Excise in India Docks who agreed to send Michael lists of mixed lots of exotic spirits that were seized when peoples excess alcohol limits were breached. With the help of this most excellent source of product combined with various cash and carry deals and loyal friends and family members bringing bottles home from their holidays for the shop to sell, in the spring of 1985 Gerry's opened its doors in the spring of 1985 with an opening team of five staff members.
The thing to remember here is that London was very different to the light speed paced city we know today. Despite the icy grip of Thatcher, the capital was in the midst of change, and seemed to be haemorrhaging cash. The porn stores shelves were lined with clunky videotapes, 'weird' had become cool and the inspirational stench of success from America's shores had reached and awakened our youth. It was an excessive decade in which boundaries were broken; a time when people had finally worked out that anything was possible and despite the typically terrible British dentistry and possibly the most questionable hair styles of all time, people began to breath; Queer became Gay, police racism had become 'an issue' and those that had always been made to feel that they should hide, took their place on the streets and finally stood proud.
By the late eighties the gay community had embraced the area and as a result it began to flourish into the iconic warren of streets that we all know and love today. Before this, Soho had more of a small village type feel, which was full of thriving restaurants and small specialist shops, but by the time Gerry's opened it had become, as a result of the struggling change within the country, a naturally edgy and extremely cool area to live in. Britain certainly still had a shamefully blinkered view of things they didn't understand but Gerry's was the place where all were equal, welcomed and loved.
After its first two steady years the business began to boom and the shop was inundated with letters from all over the country with requests for the weird and the wonderful tipples they became so well known for stocking. Gerry's reputation had spread rapidly and Michael would often take a couple of his relatives up to London's more prestigious department stores and get them to request obscure drinks to see where the staff would suggest they go to find it. The famous line was 'I'm afraid to say we don't stock it Sir, but if there's one place that will it's Gerry's. They have everything!' All of the local cafes, restaurants, hotels, clubs, brothels and pubs used Gerrys to set up their back bars and keep them topped up.
They would provide the semi clandestine gay clubs of the early eighties such as The A & B club (where you would walk up to the fourth floor and put on a complimentary dress) and Danny la Rue and Alan Haines clubs in Gerrard Street and in the basement of the Greek Havajia restaurant on Bateman Street. Michael's shop was adored by people from all walks of life but as Old Compton Street became a predominantly gay postcode, Michael knew he didn't need to change; his relationship with everyone was a friendly one and as the word of this local family style shop began to spread the customers came in droves and Gerry's became as much of a meeting place and social hangout for everybody as it did a highly successful business. Famous actors and musicians were all locals and friends of Michael and mixed just as well as gin does with tonic with everybody else; it had become the cool place to hangout, catch up and pass the days away with a tipple in hand and a smile on your face.
During this ejaculation of growth and prosperity Michael's customer base had spread across both country and continent. In fact there is a touching tale to be told about a man and woman who met in Venice whilst both clutching Gerry's carrier bags; this helped spark up a conversation that would eventually lead to them marrying one another years later! When mobile phones were the size of cocktail shakers and used mainly by 'Yuppies' it was a little harder for mere mortals to connect with one another. The shop would therefore receive daily bags of letters and postcards with requests for obscure bottles and general well wishing to the staff from their favourite clients whilst away on their holidays. And, to be fair, in today's world, who takes the time to send a postcard to their local off licence?
Gerry's had, during its busiest period, just over twelve staff including three accountants, yet had Michael not been running the show the full potential of the store would certainly never have been realised. For in all the years the shop has been open Michael has never sacked one of his handpicked staff and this tells a lot about a man. It is certainly his warm and caring character that ensured the balance of the hilariously dysfunctional family style team and random rickety library feel of the shop was just as it should be. He felt every visit should be an experience; an idea that is echoed throughout the world's most successful bars and clubs; he knew this from the word go and it still remains more or less exactly the way he left it.
Frank Spiteri sadly passed in 1999 and left it to his wife Dorothy, the agreement was made was that the business was to carry on as it had always been until Michael decided it was time to leave the shop and spend more time with his beloved wife Katerina and their sons, daughters and grandchildren. After fifty-three years on Old Compton Street Michael retired, sort of! He still spends three days a week working with manager Allen Daley to keep the shop the way it should be. Allen has been working with Michael for nearly thirty years and as times change you may wonder if Michael's shop still has what it takes to cut the mustard? In a fast paced world led by gadgets and cold communication one thing remains indestructible and that is the simple human connection that is established through taking the time to build a real friendship with a customer; a simple smile from a friendly face that knows your name still goes a long way. Some things simply never change. Gerry's will adapt but never really alter. If it does then everything that Michael stood for would collapse along with the business itself.
This is his story and the shop he founded has, in many ways, become a heart of the bar community. Internationally acclaimed and award winning bartenders, bar managers, bar consultants, bar owners, brand ambassadors, brand directors, journalists, distillers, growers and winemakers from all across the world frequently pop in just as much for a chat as they do to pick something up. It still continues to create the atmosphere and feel that Michael wanted. Brands both big and small have realised that despite the initial lack of glitz and glamour that various other booze emporiums may well have, Gerry's is the place to really get a product put across to the public. It has something that so many other shops lack; it has a heart; this is the reason that it's so much more than just a business and long may it remain that way.
To build something outstanding takes more than money and bullshit, it takes hard work, honesty, struggle, sacrifice and of course time. The shop like the man that made it is a true original. Michael Kyprianou has been a vital part of the growth of the drinks industry and thus to some extent the bartending trade in Europe and is certainly long overdue the true recognition, credit and respect he so rightly deserves.