In 1978, Tucson native Mark Thomson took a leap of faith. He decided to leave business school at the University of Arizona and buy a small liquor store in Campbell Plaza with the help of his father. At the time, he didn’t know much about fine wines, liquor or beer.
Forty-three years later, Plaza Liquors and Fine Wines, 2642 N. Campbell Avenue, is still in business in the heart of the city of Tucson. The shop has persisted through the rise of big-box retailers and made a name for itself through its eclectic selection of local products. While Mark has his eyes on retirement, he plans to keep Plaza Liquors in the family that made it successful.
“I think that we survived on product knowledge and friendliness to the customers,” Mark said. “It was because of the belief that you need to treat people really good, try to inform them the best you can and make them feel like they’re in a place that they’re appreciated.”
When Plaza first opened its doors, it was the only store with a liquor license in Campbell Plaza. Shoppers from A.J. Bayless, the neighboring supermarket, would buy their groceries and then head over to Plaza for their liquor. Mark and his former wife, India, ran the store together. They jokingly nicknamed the store “closet liquors” because of its small size, but it was big enough to keep them in business there for 14 years.
As they got the hang of the business, they ventured out to vineyards and breweries to learn more about their products.
“We just read, we learned, and we figured it out,” Mark said. “That’s really all it takes—just a passion to learn about it.”
Eventually, Mark decided to move locations so he could expand the business. He moved Plaza Liquors into a stand-alone building down the street, where it has remained for almost 30 years. Initially, business at the new location was slow, but within a year, a solid customer base built up.
Throughout the years, Mark had to come up with innovative strategies to compete with the liquor store chains that started moving into town once “fair-trade” laws officially ended in 1976. The big-box retailers had a profound impact on the liquor industry, selling their products at extremely low prices, which many independent liquor stores just couldn’t afford to do.
“It drove a lot of my friends and fellow liquor store owners out of business,” Mark said. “But I was determined. I was not going to let them run me out of business. And they didn’t. We kept growing over the years. But we had to be innovative in our approach and try to present something that was unique.”
Mark and the staff at Plaza searched the state for affordable, locally produced wines, spirits and beers so they could offer their customers an expanded collection that staff have referred to as “interesting” and “off the beaten path.” In addition to offering a wider selection, the team has worked hard to make the sometimes-overwhelming topics of wine, liquor and beer more approachable for their customers.
“There’s so much that Plaza has done that so many other people have copied or tried to copy,” said Robert Stout, the tap room manager at Dragoon Brewing Company and a former Plaza employee. “Now everyone is craft this, craft that, but Plaza did it 10, 20 years before anyone else did, and that’s just very special when you think about it.”
Stout worked at Plaza for 10 years, starting in 2004. With encouragement from Mark, he developed a love for craft beer and was eventually known as the “beer guy” at the store. He says his time at Plaza set him up for success in his brewing career.
“I remember there was a time when people would go in there, and they were amazed that they could build their own six pack,” Stout said. “And it doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s actually a really huge thing because it gives people an opportunity to try a bunch of different types of products and expose themselves to craft beer and everything that entails.”
Mark now runs the store alongside his daughter, Emilie, who is preparing to take over as Mark slowly transitions into retirement. She never imagined she would end up working at Plaza, but over the years, she too has developed a passion for the industry.
When COVID hit, Mark and Emilie weren’t sure if Plaza would survive. The store is small and packed full of products. Mark felt there wasn’t adequate space to socially distance inside, and he didn’t want to expose his small staff of six to the virus. He decided to close the store to walk-ins and reinstate Plaza’s drive-thru window, which had been boarded up 20 years prior.
Mark originally closed the window because he felt that it was distracting and made it difficult for the staff to offer walk-in customers the time and attention they deserved. He never thought that window would end up saving his business almost two decades later.
The staff at Plaza pulled the board down, installed a new window and got to work. They were able to continue to offer their suggestions and expertise to their customers who placed their orders from the comfort of their cars.
Plaza Liquors has reopened to walk-in business, but they will continue to offer their drive-thru services indefinitely. Mark says customers love the drive-thru option, and the staff has perfected the art of drive-thru liquor sales over the past 14 months.
“The people, the customers have absolutely always been my first love with my business,” Mark said. “To the people who have been supporting us for all this time, I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart for keeping food on my table and giving me the opportunity to do what I wanted to do, which was be in business.”