It started simply enough: a wine store on Melbourne's busy Punt Road artery, opened by two siblings in 2006 with the aim of demystifying the world of wine and helping drinkers better explore flavours.
Naturally enough, spirits, cider and beer all found their way onto the shelves too and, as the local drinks industry kept growing, so too did the offering. As did the number of stores, to the point where the story bears comparison to those of the most successful breweries over the same period.
At time of writing, there are eleven Blackhearts & Sparrows stores and, since the siblings opened one in Braddon last year and then North Hobart more recently, it's a name becoming known far beyond its Windsor roots. With a twelfth store set to open in Abbotsford by the end of the year, it will bring the tally to five new stores in 18 months, including one inside Melbourne Central.
The brother and sister responsible for this independent retail success story are Paul and Jess Ghaie, these days aided by a growing team they're keen to celebrate too. And their connections with the world of good booze stretch back further than 2006: Paul opened his first bottleshop in 1997 with Jess joining in 2003 before Blackhearts & Sparrows became a reality.
A year on from opening the Windsor store, they opened a second on Lygon Street, but they believe it was number three, in Fitzroy North, that got them noticed. Located a short stroll from Melbourne’s best park for afternoon drinks and a supermarket that has its own cult-like devotion helped.
“It was the most populated area at the time,” Paul says. “And being close to Piedimonte's and Edinburgh Gardens, I think it’s where we first gained a little bit more attention than we had compared to the preceding few years.”
It was also the store that allowed them to devote more space to beer and got them on the front foot within a beer industry that was just starting to boom.
“Just the size of the shop as well, we were really able to range it,” Jess says. “As that beer explosion happened, we realised we couldn’t do it all ourselves.”
Paul adds: “There wasn’t that much retail accessibility then. There were plenty of bars you could go to and try them all but there weren’t really many options if you wanted to buy new beer and take it home.”
The number of stores and diversity of beers on offer have grown dramatically in the intervening years, but Paul says they’ve stuck to their mantra.
“It’s exactly the same; it was always about quality and value. The same as we do we with wine, we would taste the beers and made sure they tasted like they should," he says, while admitting: "It’s a little different now with some crazier flavours.”
Not just crazier flavours but a crazy amount of choice – and not just when it comes to beer. Add in the appearance of scores of new distilleries, cider brands and the growing band of more esoteric winemakers and you've got a SKU-mageddon that shows no signs of slowing. But, when it comes to navigating the ever-changing landscape, Jess says they stick to a core idea they’ve held since the start.
“We’ve always wanted to be the place where you can come and get anything from us whatever price range,” he says. “As long as it’s balanced, it comes back to having a little bit of everything for everyone. But we stand true to our ideals of curating our range and trying things before it makes it on the shelves.”
Becoming part of the various communities in which they've opened stores is something both talk about as a driving force. It’s why each Blackhearts store is unmistakably a Blackhearts store but still has its own feel and focus.
By and large, bottleshops are stops of convenience and don’t have the gravitational pull that breweries or bars possess to bring people across a city for a pint. Sure, if a fresh shipment of Cantillon arrives, there are those who'll hit the road, some hitting up multiple stores to maximise their haul, but most of the time you’re there to find something to take home or out for dinner.
“That’s kind of what keeps us going, we always think wherever we open we’re hopefully doing that neighbourhood a really good service by improving their drinks amenity,” Paul says.
“We don’t open stores just for the sake of opening stores, we always hope we open in an area that’s going to really enjoy and appreciate us being there.”
Then there's the staff. For Canberra and Hobart, even though they’d talked about opening stores in both cities in the past, it was the relocation of existing staff to those cities that helped make it reality.
“We’d always thought about interstate because there were gaps in those markets but control, management and security are all tough issues when you’re so far away,” Jess says.
“Continuing to build that culture among the staff is what gives us the confidence to continue to expand because we feel we can still roll out stores but have them be individual and be part of that community and not be some big faceless group.”
Connecting with their customers and with drinks makers is in part what’s driving the store’s recent collaborations. Already this year they’ve released beers with the likes of Sailors Grave, Stomping Ground and CoConspirators, which Paul says they see as keeping themselves better educators and drinkers more engaged.
“We’re all working in the same space for what I like to think are the same reasons: we want people to drink better, we want people to go on that educational journey and explore all the different and unique things out there."
Jess believes it also helps customers understand what they’re buying and who made it; the stories behind what we drink, whether from a local brewery or distant winery, can play an important role.
“We live in an information era where people want to be informed on the backstory,” Jess says. “We’re also a lot more conscious now of the way things are grown or produced and people are a lot more informed.”
The information age has its own challenges: with social media and online groups all playing a role in driving sales, there’s a question of how well informed a bottleshop worker needs to be if customers have already made up their minds.
“I think you’re always going to get that aspect with anything that’s fashionable,” Paul says. “We’ve seen that in the last three years in wine more than ever, with a lot of the minimal intervention wines that are hugely Instagrammable that people want to say they’ve tried.”
What a good retailer can offer is the ability to build a relationship with customers – knowing what they like and how to talk to them about what you think is really good.
“You might have someone come in and all they want to do is try the latest and greatest they’ve seen on Instagram – and we’re happy to order something in – but it also gives us the opportunity to say, 'Well, if you really like that, maybe try this because we think it’s even better.',” he says.
In terms of what they’ve found most rewarding over the past 13 years, warm smiles appear when discussing how the local drink industry has developed in the last few years and the way new people and ideas are fuelling businesses in a country where tradition holds a limited sway. More than that, however, it's the growing of family of staff to which both Paul and Jess return.
“We’ve had so many people start on a casual basis and then, all of a sudden, they become a store manager,” Jess says. “Or, as we’ve grown, we’ve needed more back of house support, so to be able to advance people like that is really rewarding."
As for the name Blackhearts & Sparrows, well, that's a family connection too: both are nicknames Paul and Jess were given by their youngest sister. Blackheart for Paul's propensity to work so much when he started out in business and sparrow for Jess' small frame. Now they just need a collective noun for their growing collection of stores. An elegance, perhaps?