At a family dinner recently, my relatives, two retired CU-Boulder professors, began reminiscing about Harry Hoffman Liquors.
"Oh, the selection!" they remarked, "And the low prices!" They were so low, they explained, that once a week, faculty members took turns making the drive from Boulder to Denver to procure an order of potable goods.
Then, my cousin dashed off to a closet and returned a moment later with an elaborate decanter from the 1950s or '60s—a model of the Harry Hoffman store on one side and a mountainside complete with downhill skier on the other.
Harry Hoffman Liquors wasn't just popular with my family; it was a genuine Mile High City destination. During the 1960s, the Denver Convention and Visitors Bureau declared the liquor store a major attraction—just behind the U.S. Mint and the city's parks and museums.
So what was the big draw to Harry Hoffman's?
Indeed, the prices were low. As Harry Hoffman admitted in a 1965 Denver Post article, "The usual markup on liquor is 33 1/3%, but I’ll take a markup of 10% or less.” These low prices invited a slew of lawsuits and complaints against Hoffman by other dealers who believed Hoffman sold at prices less than those set by fair trade laws.
Hoffman bought in great quantities. So great, in fact, that he was at one time the largest volume buyer of liquor in the West. With volume came discounts, and Hoffman took advantage of the highest possible discounts available.
At his store, Hoffman sold typical customer favorites, but also enjoyed the challenge of selling lesser-known products. Among the cases of Coors, he sold Japanese sake, French cognac, and Finnish lakka (cloudberry liqueur). Indeed the draw to Hoffman's store for many was the opportunity to see exotic products (and their elaborate packaging, too—Dutch liqueur bottles with music boxes inside, anyone?).
Then there was the store itself.
In April 1960, Harry Hoffman Liquors relocated from the corner of 18th and Curtis Street (a former fireworks store that Hoffman described as ". . . such a mess of grease and cockroaches that I got it for $85 a month") to the former Empire Hotel, a three-story building at 18th Street and Glenarm Place.
Although the retail store occupied only a 40' x 60' space on the first floor, the rest of the building was used to house the incredible volume of stock Hoffman purchased. The building engaged cutting-edge technology, too—"a pneumatic tube dispatch system which enables a phone order to be written up, cased, and delivered by conveyor belt to the parking lot within 10 minutes." Note that the parking was free at Harry Hoffman's, which also likely contributed to the store's popularity.
Harry Hoffman started his sales career early in life. Born in Denver on November 8, 1908, Hoffman's parents were Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Russia who operated a grocery store and delicatessen at 2159 Larimer Street. At age eight, Hoffman was tasked with protecting a watermelon display from mischievous children (with the help of a baseball bat). At age 14, he dropped out of East High School to work full-time at his parents' store when his mother fell ill.
After working in clothing stores on Larimer Street and gaining a reputation for his sales skills, Hoffman dealt in the sale of surplus goods until deciding on using his life savings of $3,500 to open a liquor store in the 1930s. Hoffman rarely drank alcohol himself. He said,
I picked liquor as a business because I’d been a clothing and a grocery salesman, and liquor seemed like the Shangri-La of merchandise. It’s a product that doesn’t become obsolete, doesn’t go out of style, doesn’t have color fads, and isn’t perishable.
Dependable Cleaners bought the landmark Harry Hoffman Liquors store in 1974.
Harry Hoffman passed away at the age of 79 in 1988.
Thank you for bringing my father back to life for a few moments. Not only did he excell in
salesmanship, he was an exceptional human being! He was exceedingly generous and he
helped many people and their families. We were so honored to have our parents,
Lillian and Harry Hoffman. They achieved many honorable deeds. They were exciting
Thank you so much for reading and for your wonderful comments, Sheila. Your father's personality comes through so clearly in the interviews I read. He sounds like he was a wonderful man!
I purchased a Harry Hoffman decanter today at an Estate Sale and on the back their is his signature. I was wondering if anyone else has one of these with his autograph on the back. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks. tacomatina@ hotmail.com
I just bought one of these decanters from goodwill. So interesting to learn about it!
This was so rewarding to read about the History of the Store and the Story behind it in regards to the personal history of HH. Interesting!
Thanks for reading, Colleen. We hope to share more stories about the history of Denver's businesses soon!
I worked at Hoffman's in the early 1970's. During my time there, Mr. Hoffman was always nice to me. He knew all of his employee's names and acted in a very down to earth manner. It was always entertaining when he worked the sales counter because he was such a character. He would save his best sales pitches when he was trying to sell an expensive bottle of liquor or wine. It was a real treat to watch him in action.
Thank you for sharing your memories, Ralph. It sounds like Mr. Hoffman was a super salesman and manager!
I was in the travel business long ago--lived on the West Coast, but made frequent trips to to Denver. My "at work" cronies and I knew about the great deals offered at Harry Hoffman's Liquors and we held off replenishing our libation supplies until a scheduled trip to Denver allowed us to make a visit to Harry's liquor emporium for a purchase--which we happily toted home. Talking about the 60's & 70's. Ah yes, those were the days.
Interesting to hear that Hoffman's reputation for low prices reached the coast! Thanks for sharing your memories, Jerry!