Berman’s: A legacy of giving, learning, and love

“We become friends with the people that come in here, we know who they are,

we understand what goes on, and we care about them.”

–  Joel Berman


Berman family members in front of their shop. Courtesy photo

By Devin Shaw

After at least 6 months of planning, on September 7th, Berman’s Wine & Spirits held their 10th Annual Block Party in East Lexington. Joel Berman was also celebrating an even bigger anniversary—the 110th anniversary of his family’s business. The event was supremely curated: food from local artisanal vendors and Lexington restaurants, beers and wine tastings inside the store, (spectacular) music from LHS students, and a booth selling raffle tickets and knick-knacks—the proceeds of which are going to the people in the Bahamas.

It was a real family affair. The staff and their families were tasked with individual jobs. You see, Berman’s is a real family business—even if you aren’t a Berman.

The celebration wasn’t just for Berman’s individually; it was for Lexington. Joel has been running the store for 56 years, and his relationship with Lexing-ton is of the utmost importance to him.  He told me, “We’re a part of the community, we’ve been here for a long period of time. We care about this place; we care about Lexington; we care about the community. We care about the people in the community, the people who come here; we want to give them the best service that they can possibly get. We want them to come here and have a wonderful experience.”

When anything is 110 years old, there is bound to be a long history. The Bermans story started with a cattle boat leaving Russia, Joel told me, “Legend has it that the business was incorporated in 1909 by my grandfather Max. He came over here on a cattle boat from Russia. He ran a dry goods and meat store right here at 12 and 14 Mass Avenue. It’s a two-family house. They actually reared cattle back there. My uncle Eddie used to run a meat market up and down the street.”

Berman’s in the early 1900s in East Lexington. Courtesy Photo

Joel’s grandfather was known for his generosity—often giving food to the poor without expectation of compensation (specifically during The Great Depression), he just wanted to help out his fellow community members in need. Joel explained to me, “So in 1933 when the repeal [of Prohibition] happened the chairman of Lexington’s Board of Selectmen came and said ‘Max we have a liquor license here, we’d like you to have it.’ and he said, ‘I don’t know what to do with it.’ They said, ‘Well, you’re an honorable man, and we’d like you to have it.’ And he said ‘Fine, okay, so I’ll take it.’”

Joel’s father, Mike, ran a very successful driving school (Grove Hill Driving School) but his wife (Joel’s mother) insisted that he help his father with the new liquor store. So Mike and his brother joined the business. Joel explained, “they started with less than six bottles! But, it just grew. When my grandfather passed away in 1949, the two brothers essentially inherited the business, and they worked together off-and-on.”

At the same time, there was a restaurant across the street that was having problems.  Joel said, “They had hanky-panky in the kitchen, and Hell’s Angels in the parking lot and they were having all these problems. And, my mother insisted—she was very prescient and smart—that my uncle and father buy the property. They did, and we’ve been here ever since.”

A few years later Joel was studying psychology at B.U. but took a sabbatical to enlist in the Army. When he returned home from the military, he went back to BU to finish up school and took a part-time job at his family’s store. That was in 1962.

His father took ill, that’s when Joel stepped up. He said, “At 56 years of age, my father contracted diabetes―he had never been sick a day in his life. So I ran the store at age 24, and I bought my uncle out when I was just 30. So I was essentially equal partners with my dad, but he was completely retired, so I was completely autonomous.”

This is when his education began. Joel said, “I knew nothing about anything…including wine.”

Joel Berman (far left), along with his wife and life partner Bonnie (far right) are pictured with Kathleen Darcy, Ada Wong and Lester Savage at a recent Chamber of Commerce event at Aloft Hotel. Joel is a former
longtime director of the Chamber. (Photo by Jim Shaw)

Joel continued, “People didn’t really buy much wine, there was almost none. There were none of these periodicals: The Wine Spectator, The Wine Advocate, and Decanter Magazine. It was all word of mouth. However, there became a point where I was going to do a little bit of renovation here, and I was going to push a wall back, it was going to cost me $5,000 to do it.”

The contractor never showed, and Joel had an extra $5,000. He exclaimed, “I said ‘you know what? I’m going to buy a Bordeaux!’ So I bought a Bordeaux. I bought three cases of this, five cases of that, and some other products. And, to me, it was like selling penny candy. I flipped them out at really great prices. I said, ‘Okay,’ and went away on vacation. When I came back, half the stuff was gone. I said, ‘Whoa!’

“So, I had bought – and I remember this – five cases of 1964 Chateau Beychevelle―which is a Saint-Julien―and I went to go and re-buy it, and I called my then sales manager, Leo Sulkinat at Brandon Liquors, and said ‘I want five more.’ He says, ‘Well, it’s 60 dollars.’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about? I paid 40 dollars two weeks ago.’ He says, ‘That was then, this is now.’ That’s when I learned I had to get into the wine business!”

Joel began taking classes, tasting different varieties of wines―becoming an expert. He started his own import company where he would travel overseas. He said, “I speak French, I speak Italian, and I go over there and deal with the growers directly, and pick my wines and bring it back.” He has since sold his import business to his son, but he is still the business’ “best customer, even though I don’t own it anymore. That’s why we offer different wines that a lot of people don’t have, and we still have more exotic brands than some-one else, more interesting things, because I’m not interested in having the national brands.”

Over 35 years ago, Joel began mailing a very descriptive monthly newsletter to customers with all of the wines he liked—which has now transitioned to a subscription email (you can subscribe on the website). Joel has most definitely become an expert in the field; he has even published a book on the subject, So you Want to be a Wine Merchant. I personally would encourage you to go in for a free tasting/lesson between 2:30-5:30 on Saturdays.

The most important part of shopping at a store like Berman’s is knowledge. Joel’s palate has memories. If presented with a bottle of Chardonnay that is 25 dollars, he will know one that tastes the same at a lesser cost. Or, he could find you a vintage that tastes even better!

Or as Joel says, “I’m faithful to my wife, but I’m not faithful to these bottles. Try different things, have a little fun with it!”

While you can shop at the big conglomerates, they’re not going to be able to help get you the right bottles. Berman’s is agenda-free; why else would they have loyal customers of 40 years? My best advice is: present a dinner party and offer up the menu and let any employee help pick out your wine for the evening—you will be beyond pleased!

Considering how knowledgeable Berman’s staff is, there is another reason Joel still goes in at 8 am everyday; he told me, “I’ve often said that I really like people. If I didn’t like people, I wouldn’t be here all this time. I enjoy people. I meet all kinds of people; it’s fun. I love to see them, all the diverse people. We become friends with the people that come in here, we know who they are, we understand what goes on, and we care about them. We want them to have the best time, the best experience, and get the best products that they can from us!”

Joel continues, “I can’t tell you how many people come in here and commend us, they sing our praises, and they tell us how much they love coming in here and how much they love the store. I mean it can bring tears to your eyes! And, it’s because of the personality of all the people who are here. But this is the way we’ve hired these people. A lot of my people have been here for years. They know their stuff. They are fixtures.”

You can get almost anything at Berman’s: curated local food, all of the craft beer you can imagine, an awe-inspiring spirits section. And, of course, wine. You can pick your own bottle, but as Joel told me, “You want this bottle? Yeah I got it, no worries, here it is, it has a good price. But if you want to really ask me, ‘what do you think is good?’ I’ll pick you something good.”

Berman’s Wine and Spirits is located at 55 Massachusetts Avenue in East Lexington.  You can learn more by visiting

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