Passport on an old suitcase

Change is inevitable for this immigrant entrepreneur.

By Bella Volchik

My whole life has been about change. I left the country I was born in, the Soviet Union, for a new life in New York City. In the Soviet Union, I made a living as a professional pianist, but that just wasn’t possible in the United States. I had to take a job in advertising sales, which was about as far away from music as you could imagine. A tragedy caused my family to have to move, and again, it was time to change. I’m now the owner of a wine store in a rural corner of New York, but the change hasn’t stopped.

What’s different now is the fact that I have stopped thinking change is an insurmountable problem. I have come to realize that, in every situation that seems negative, there is a spark of something positive which can be seized on as an opportunity.

When I first opened my liquor store 25 years ago, we were, in many respects a typical liquor store. We carried brands everyone knew, the brands you saw on billboards and in magazines.

That worked well for a time. Then the biggest employer in the area closed and another moved its manufacturing out of the area. The local bank changed hands. Then the recession hit and the bank that extended a line of credit to my business for many years took it away. Trouble? Yes, but to me, they were all clear signs that I had to make changes if my business was going to survive.

And I did. I changed the name of my business to reflect my Russian heritage. We’re now Russky-On-The- Hudson. Then I almost completely changed my inventory. There’s much more to the liquor business than the big brand names, and the margins on the sales of these lesser known brands can be much, much better. We began to bring in Eastern European wines and liquors, organic and sulfate-free wines and organic vodka.

To make that much change work, we had to educate our customers about our new brands. We began holding tastings, which have proven to be a big success. This is due, in part, to the fact that the demographics of our area have also changed. A lot of young people from New York City are buying weekend houses and farms in this area, and they have brought with them a big city eagerness to try new things. They have become big fans of a sparkling wine brand, Abrau-Durso Brut, which was originally created in 1870 for the court of Emperor Alexander II. In a blind taste test, many of our customers prefer it to French champagne.

We’re still working on change. Despite the positive direction our business has taken, our old bank won’t revive our line of credit. No problem—we’ve found an alternative finance company, Bizfi, which has given us capital for some of our inventory.

Change will be part of any small business. Sometimes, it will be change you initiate and sometimes it will be change forced upon you from outside. Don’t give up and don’t stop looking for alternatives. There is always a positive way forward.

Bella Volchik is the owner of Russky-On-The- Hudson, a wine shop in Ulster County, New York, two and a half hours’ drive north of New York City. During her 25 years in business she has seen the economy around her go through a major collapse and experienced the beginnings of a revival.