When LeNell Camacho Santa Ana opened her liquor store, LeNell’s Beverage Boutique, in Norwood in June 2018, she provided another positive omen of the revitalization of that historic neighborhood.
She also offers Birmingham consumers a great selection of hard-to-find wines and spirits, even though her glass and concrete storefront measures only 550 square feet.
She said it’s her personal curation that makes this possible.
“Everything is hand-selected by me,” she said. “I tell customers all the time, ‘Don’t ask if anything is good, because if it’s on my shelf, I’ve tasted it and know it’s good enough to be there.’”
This personal touch extends beyond the products.
Camacho Santa Ana wants to connect with customers in a genuine way, to tell them stories about the products she chooses and to show them there is a whole world of quality, creative beverages that go beyond just booze.
And she wants her operation, where she plans to open a cafe and bar, to be a positive addition to Norwood, a neighborhood she said welcomed her warmly when she moved there nearly a decade ago.
Born in Fort Payne, Camacho Santa Ana graduated from Birmingham-Southern College in 1991 with a degree in French and theater, then earned a master’s in public administration at UAB. She started working in Birmingham bars when she was 21 to make extra money.
After moving to New York City in 2000, Camacho Santa Ana worked at Sherry-Lehmann, the wine and liquor dealer.
Camacho Santa Ana, who had dreamed of having her own bar or liquor store, opened LeNell’s Ltd, a wine and spirits boutique, in Red Hook in Brooklyn in 2003. Her store — with the personal touch that Santa Ana brings to her Norwood shop — became legendary in New York, winning praise from New York Magazine and Whisky Magazine.
After losing her lease in 2009, she ran a bar in Mexico with Demián Camacho Santa Ana. The couple moved to Birmingham in 2011, got married and had a daughter in 2012.
They divorced in 2016, but Camacho Santa Ana remained in Norwood, having bought the old J.R. Copeland home on 32nd Street in 2012.
Over a period of seven years, she oversaw the construction of the store next to the Copeland house. “Part of the delay was financing,” she said. “I paid for it as I could.”
She and her daughter now live nearby, in a bungalow on Norwood Boulevard.
Since opening the store, Camacho Santa Ana has built a loyal following of customers from Norwood and beyond, and hosts popular wine and liquor tastings. Customers appreciate her wide selection.
She is a bourbon aficionado — some may be better than others, “but there’s no bad bourbon,” she said — and has a great selection of bourbons and whiskeys, mostly American.
Camacho Santa Ana stocks as many small producers and distillers as possible and offers many unique items, which she has cleared through the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.
“We have cognacs that no one else has in Alabama, that have no added sugar and no caramel color,” she said. “We’ve got rums that nobody else has that also don’t have added sugar.”
The store stocks specialty tequila and mescal, as well as the state’s largest selection of vermouth, she said. It features bitters and hard-to-find specialty cocktail items.
To broaden customers’ knowledge of wine, the store will “feature an unusual grape regularly to introduce people to something they have probably not heard of before,” Camacho Santa Ana said. Examples are the Spanish white grape godello, and rucke, a rarely seen wine from the Piedmont region of Italy.
The boutique puts “a big focus” on finding wines with fruit that is sustainably farmed, as well as producers that are certified organic and biodynamic, she said. The store features winemakers of color and female winemakers.
“Birmingham being predominantly African American, and especially my neighborhood, I think it’s very important for my customers to see pictures of people who look like them that make the wine they are drinking,” Camacho Santa Ana said.
Though Camacho Santa Ana loves wine and spirits, she said, “It’s not just about alcohol for me. it’s about the whole beverage experience. That’s why I call this a beverage boutique.”
For example, the boutique carries nonalcoholic beverages such as sodas and loose-leaf teas.
“The fascination is that there is always something communal and ritualistic about our consumption,” she said. “It’s part of every culture in some form.”
She has big plans for the future. Camacho Santa Ana, who bottled her own Red Hook Rye in Brooklyn, is working on creating a private whiskey label. She is collaborating with Seth Dettling of Atmore, who makes bourbon at his micro-distillery. She hopes to launch this year.
“But it takes a long time to bring a label to market,” she said.
By 2021 or 2022, Camacho Santa Ana hopes to open the New Orleans-style Copeland Café and Bar in the Greek Revival Copeland house next door to the store.
The menu, among other items, will include vegan, organic food, something Birmingham lacks, said Camacho Santa Ana. While the cafe will have a full bar, it will also prominently feature quality nonalcoholic beverages, including coffee and tea, for people “who want to hang out and have fun without drinking alcohol.”
She wants to use the Copeland house to nurture Norwood.
“I would like to have space in the Copeland to offer free community yoga classes and self-development and ways for people to come together,” she said.
“I really have a heart for creating space in the Copeland for a variety of people, to come and belong and interact with each other on a deep level that’s not just surface talk,” Camacho Santa Ana said.
As she did in Red Hook, she will continue to offer customers a personal touch, including information about products they’re buying.
“I often say, ‘I don’t sell bottles, I sell stories.’” she said. “I feel strongly that we need to feel a connection to what we’re consuming.”
This story originally appeared in Iron City Ink.