The George Lustig and the Cognac Story
A true story about my friend George in Chicago
Written 3/1/2012 rewritten 05/02/2016 unedited
As I go through life I have met people that I can say were real “Characters”, and I can tell you George Lustig was one of those people. George lived and worked in Chicago, and in 1975 he was buying and selling large lots of excess surplus truck parts. He was what was known in the business as a “Surplus Dealer”. George had started out as a young man attending government auctions in Chicago and eventually he began dealing in commercial truck parts, and that’s was what George Lustig did, for as long as I knew him. (See the George Lustig and the pipe bender story)
In 1956, when I was living in New Haven Connecticut, I started getting involved in the buying and selling of surplus in a very small way, and because of this, I had the privilege of meeting several surplus dealers that were operating in my home town of New Haven and also in New York City. What I had learned dealing with them, was that after WW2, around 1950, as the sources of military related material began slowing down, so all the surplus dealers started looking for other sources of excess surplus material, and many of them eventually moved into the commercial parts market place where they found that excess merchandise could be bought cheaply from big factories. It wasn’t long before the surplus industry became so big that an association of surplus dealers was started, it was called the Associated Surplus Dealers or “ASD”. The ASD holds shows in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, where hundreds of surplus dealers displayed their merchandise. Today of course it is probably all Chinese imported stuff being displayed. But back then, in 1975 the industry was very big, so big, that some surplus dealers started to zone in and specialize in only certain types of specialized material, and they became specialists in their particular area of expertise. For some dealers, they just bought automotive parts, and for others it was clothing or for some it was toys, and on and on.
The surplus industry became so big that soon many of the employees working for the old time surplus dealers, then branched off and became surplus dealers themselves. A good example was a gentleman named Sol Shenk of Columbus Ohio. Sol had unlimited access to investor’s funds, and he soon became well known for buying the surplus bankrupt assets. He bought all the assets of the Bricklyn Automobile Company and later all the assets of the Delorean. By doing this, Sol Shenk became known as a super surplus dealer, eventually opening up over 700 surplus stores nationwide.
By the time I met Sol Shenk he was already semiretired to Florida, still buying and selling surplus. I met him at his warehouse in Fort Lauderdale where he showed me some of his latest acquisitions, he had bought millions of Q tips, and the reason he was able to buy them as surplus was because some were defective missing their cotton tips.
Now the reason I mention Sol was because, a lot of people had told me to contact him. Most of them were people that had worked for Sol one time or another, and had learned the business from him. They all had gone on to become surplus dealers themselves. Over the years I was fortunate enough to have met and done business with several of them.
So in 1974, I was just setting up two companies in Miami, one was API Marine and the other company was Rebuilders Supply. Rebuilders supply sold automotive electrical parts both in the U.S. and also for export. API Marine sold its products through marine distributors throughout the United States. So it wasn’t long before the demand for our products outstripped our ability to supply the market. We needed to find a good source of commercial as well as marine surplus.
I started thinking about my old days in the surplus business, and friends told me that several of the old dealers were still in business in the Chicago area but I didn’t know who they were. But I was told that I should contact a company called Fleet Supply, and ask for a fellow named George Lustig, which I did right away.
I called George and eventually went to Chicago to meet him. His Company was called Fleet Supply and was located on Canal Street in Chicago and he had a very large warehouse that was just loaded with lots of new automotive and truck surplus parts.
For me, it was like finding a real surplus bonanza, to be able to buy from George. So my relationship with him became just as nice as it could be and George appeared to be thrilled to have found a new good customer from Florida. Over the next year or so, I visited George at fleet Supply many times, buying everything he had that suited our business, we had become a good customer for him. So, one day in the winter of 1975, I was walking through George’s warehouse, looking at all the wonderful new surplus items he had, and as I was walking about, I bumped into another customer who was from Texas. He was doing the same as I was, but he was looking to buy different items than I was. The Texan, was about my age, 35 years old, and he was dressed up in cowboy boots, cowboy hat and big silver belt buckle, there was no question he was a real Texan. We both walked around George’s warehouse together, each of us picking out the items we wanted.
By late that afternoon after we had both finished our business, and George asked us to follow him into the kitchen area which was located in the back of his warehouse. But,
just before we entered the kitchen, George opened up a door to what appeared to be a storage room, and in the middle of the room was a large metal bakers rack that was about 4 feet wide and about 5 feet tall with at least five shelves on it. Each of the shelves contained boxes of expensive cologne’s and perfumes, also there were bottles of expensive whiskeys and several bottles of what appeared to be some kinds of expensive wine. As I looked, I couldn’t help but notice one Cognac bottle on the lower shelf. The reason I noticed it because the bottle was a darker color than the rest, and it had a bent neck, that bent neck made it stand out from the other bottles on the rack. It also appeared to have a handwritten label.
George quickly stepped in front of the rack and said, “Fellows, I would like you to take whatever you want, as my gift to you”. That bothered me, personally, when he said that, actually I was a little insulted that he would be offering me a gift. To me it sounded like it was a bribe for having done business with him, so I told George that while I appreciated his generosity, I thought that instead of offering me an expensive gift, he should lower his prices on what I had bought. It appeared that the Texan agreed with me and neither of us took anything off the bakers rack. But our not accepting a gift, didn’t appear to bother George at all, and he said, “Come on guys follow me into the kitchen, I have something I want you to taste”. He then motioned for us to have a seat at his kitchen table which was a long picnic bench with an oilcloth table cloth on it.
As I sat down on the back side of the bench, I ended up facing the Texan who was sitting right across from me. George said, “I want you guys to try something very special”, and he put two whiskey shot glasses on the table in front of us.
George then went to an upper cupboard in the kitchen and gently took out a bottle of Cognac. It was identical to the bottle I had seen on the lower shelf of the bakers rack, and it had the same bent neck and handwritten label.
George poured each of us a shot glass full of the Cognac out of the bottle. He said, “This is some of the finest Cognac in the world, I had imported a case of twelve bottles that were shipped to me from Cognac France, each bottle cost me $800.00”.
George handed me the bottle and I could see it had a special hand written label on it.
The label had some kind of story written by hand in cursive French writing, and I could see that Georges name and the date were also written on it. George had said that the Cognac was made exclusively for him in France.
I lifted my glass, and I drank the Cognac, and it was possibly the worst thing I had ever tasted. I don’t know how I kept my composure, but I knew George was watching us, so I gritted my teeth and managed a smile. But I watched the face of the Texan sitting across from me and I thought he was going to throw up. Unseen by George, the Texan’s face was contorting in every possible way.
“Now wasn’t that really good” George asked. Both the Texan and I nodded in agreement, but I saw the Texan was crossing his eyes as he looked at me. George went on to say, “That Cognac should be good after costing me $800.00 a bottle. Plus the cost of shipping it here.
George then went on and told us a cute story about how he had kept in his liquor bar at home, one of the $800.00 bottles of Cognac, it was in a cabinet protected inside a sealed cardboard sleeve type container. George said he was saving that bottle of expensive Cognac for a special occasion.
One day, when the special occasion came, and after George had finished telling his guests all about how much the bottle of Cognac cost, George removed the bottle from the cardboard sleeve, only to find the bottle was empty. It appears that every week when his maid came to clean his apartment, she took a nip or two, and over a period of time she had emptied the entire $800.00 bottle of Cognac.
That evening as we were leaving Georges kitchen at the warehouse, I mentioned to him that I had noticed his last $800.00 bottle of Cognac that was sitting on the lower shelf of the bakers rack. I asked George, what would have happened if when he offered me anything on the rack, and I picked the bottle of Cognac with the bent neck.
George got very quiet. He was thinking, then he said, “I would have given it to you”. I should have told George that I wouldn’t want that Cognac even if he paid me to take it, but I said nothing.