Agency leaves local store in limbo

CHATHAM–“The road to prosperity runs through New York’s corner stores…” Governor David Paterson said recently. Yet, for Chatham’s Corner Store, which opened at the corner of Hudson Avenue and School Street this summer, New York State has been anything but a good partner.

The Corner Store is run by Nirmal Bajwa and Narender Sharma. They opened the store in July after their company, Nirma, Inc., ended its lease of the Sunoco station across Hudson Avenue after the landlord decided to raise the rent. Mr. Bajwa and Mr. Sharma had operated the Sunoco station for six years, following Mr. Bajwa’s move to Chatham from Madison, Wisconsin, where he had lived and run gas stations and convenience stores for 14 years.

At the Sunoco station, Nirma, Inc. had a license to sell beer, and when the two partners moved their business across Hudson Avenue they applied to the New York State Liquor Authority to “remove” the license from the old location at 52 Hudson Avenue and grant it for their new store at 25 Hudson Avenue.

“Removal” is simply the transfer of a license, which is site-specific, from one location to another.  Unlike an application for the initial issuance of a license, which is a complicated process, a removal application is relatively simple. Mr. Bajwa and Mr. Sharma filed the appropriate paperwork in July, giving their new telephone number and address.

At about the same time, the new tenant at the Sunoco station, Avvatar Foods, Inc., also filed an application for a beer license.

That’s when the problem appears to have started.

According to the State Liquor Authority (SLA), on July 22, seemingly unaware of Nirma’s removal application, an SLA representative called Nirma to ask that it surrender its license so that a license could issue to Avvatar. But instead of calling Mr. Bajwa or Mr. Sharma at their new number, the call from the state went to Nirma Inc.’s old telephone number, which by then was being used by Avvatar.  The SLA was told that Nirma, Inc. was no longer at the Sunoco station and convenience store, having “abandoned” the premises, according to the state. The SLA granted Avvatar a license.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bajwa and Mr. Sharma heard nothing about their application.  Mr. Bajwa began calling the SLA daily to find out the status of the application. Without a beer license, the business’s sales were a third of what they had been at the Sunoco station or what Mr. Bajwa expected. Daily, Mr. Bajwa was told there was no news yet.

On August 25, Nirma, Inc. received a letter requesting additional information. The next day, Mr. Bajwa personally delivered the additional paperwork to the SLA in Albany. More silence ensued.

Increasingly desperate, as their sales were slow and their savings dwindled, Mr. Bajwa and Mr. Sharma resumed daily calls, now contacting the SLA representative who had requested the additional paperwork.

In September, frustrated, he contacted State Senator Saland (R-41st).  On October 6 Nirma, Inc. was faxed an undated letter denying its application and stating that Nirma “does not qualify for a removal as they had abandoned the premises and a new license issued for 52 Hudson Avenue,” the Sunoco location.

Nirma, Inc. had not abandoned the premises at 52 Hudson and has a letter from the landlord to verify that, and since Nirma was seeking a removal license for 25 Hudson, not 52, Mr. Bajwa and Mr. Sharma hired local attorney James Kleinbaum to help them. He wrote to the SLA to clarify the facts, and Mr. Bajwa delivered the letter personally to Albany. By that time, chastened by his experiences with the SLA, he got a receipt.

But when he called to follow up, the SLA official he spoke to said the agency never got the letter.

Mr. Kleinbaum has since faxed the letter on two different occasions and emailed it once.  So far, the SLA still claims not to have received it.

For Mr. Bajwa and Mr. Sharma the financial situation is increasingly dire. Between them, they are responsible for the support of themselves and four family members, yet their sales are modest and will not pick up without the beer license. With their savings almost gone, they will have to shut their doors soon.

The SLA had no response to inquiries from The Columbia Paper. Although its website says “The State Liquor Authority is fostering a business-friendly attitude toward those in the alcoholic beverage industry,” the number listed on its website for press inquiries is no longer in service and the main SLA operator simply takes messages.

A press officer did return a call and promised to look into the matter, but as of press time the only response to the inquiry was a voice message, referring back to the denial letter, as if no subsequent correspondence correcting it had been sent.

Mr. Bajwa and Mr. Sharma are two entrepreneurs who find the fate of their business is in the hands of a state bureaucracy. So far, the bureaucracy has not responded. 

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