ANN ABOUT TOWN: Spartan Spirits and Big Questions

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015, 8:00 am
Ann Nichols

For a person who doesn’t actually drink much, I’ve spent a lot of time lately finding alcohol in East Lansing for Eli stories.This time I set out to explore “that little liquor store near El Azteco that’s been there forever,” which, as it turns out, is really called Spartan Spirits. I had never been into the place in my life, and it seemed to have been there nearly forever.

Thinking about this project, I ran through the places in East Lansing that have been there for a long time. Pinball Pete’s, Student Book Store, Curious Book Shop, Twitchell's Cleaners, Mackerel Sky, Saper Galleries, Crunchy's, The Peanut Barrel, Rick's, Flat, Black & Circular, El Azteco (though not in its present location), Beggar’s Banquet, Campbell’s Smoke Shop, the 7-11 on Grove Street, and probably others I’m missing. I am extraordinarily old, and all of those places were around when I was in high school.

It made me wonder what it was about those places, the improbable survivors of decades of change. Is there something about those businesses that keeps them alive no matter what, like the squirrels that survive our brutal Michigan winters? Are they special? Run better? More beloved? (I am not going to answer any of those questions, at least not right now. Someday soon, if there really is an answer).

As it turns out, there does not appear to be anything supernaturally fascinating about Spartan Spirits. It’s a place to buy alcohol, cigarettes, soda, chips and/or Slim Jims, and according to my companion there are abundant beer choices. According to Lex, who was working the counter that day, it is a family-owned business, he’s friends with the owner, and he had moved from Chicago to work at the store.

He was pretty sure his-friend-the-owner had been in possession since some time I the 1990s, about 20 years. Before that, he said, it might have been a grocery store. His customers are mostly college students, evenly divided along gender lines. 

So in the end, my trip to Spartan Spirits was not life-changing. After lo these many years, I now know first-hand that “that little liquor store near El Azteco that’s been there forever” is pretty much a small, nicely stocked party store and that a friendly guy named Lex works there.

More interesting is the whole issue of what remains in East Lansing, and why. Is it a business-by-business kind of thing involving unique factors, or is there a pattern? If businesses stayed alive based on the applause-o-meter, we’d still have Jacobson’s and Barnes & Noble. If it was really all about what students want, we might not still have Saper Gallery or Beggar’s Banquet. Whatever it is, it’s complicated.

Stay tuned.

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