She pulls up to the liquor store by 10 a.m., clutching a zippered pouch for the receipts, wearing pearl earrings and sandals that won’t slip on the slick floor.
“Morning!” she calls to her two sons and whoever is already shopping.
“Morning, Mom!” they reply. Even the customers call her mom.
Josephine Valenty, 96, walks beneath the light-up Budweiser wagon, past the statue of Jack Daniels, along the wall of wine. At the Corona palm tree, she turns left. She used to stop there and stand behind the cash register -- for 10 hours a day, six days a week.
She’s been a clerk, she says proudly, for 80 years.
This last month, her grandson has been begging her not to go to work. Her granddaughter gave her a yellow mask and made her promise to wear it whenever she goes out. And her sons have relegated her to the tiny office by the front door of Pasadena Liquors, behind the glass window.
Valenty knows that her age puts her in the highest-risk category with COVID-19. She understands why everyone is worried about her.
“But I’m not scared,” she keeps saying. “At least not for me.”
She doesn’t have to work. Not for the money.
But since liquor stores are “essential” businesses, and people are buying more booze than ever, there are receipts to tally, ledgers to fill out, deposits to make.
“What do you want me to do instead?” she asks. “Stay in my house and dust knick-knacks?”
Valenty’s parents emigrated from Italy to Pennsylvania in the early 1900s. Her father was a stonemason. Her mother raised 11 children during the Depression. Josephine was the seventh. She stopped going to school after eighth grade to help take care of her siblings.
At 17, she got her first paying job.
“We lived in Bakerstown, a coal mining town. Our house was right across the street from the company store,” she said. “The owner was impressed with my bookkeeping.”
When soldiers started coming home from World War II, she started spending Saturday nights at the American Legion. There, she ran into John Valenty, a master sergeant in the Army who was four years older, who said he had helped defeat Hitler. His family ran a produce stand in the neighboring town.
They got married in 1948 — on a Wednesday. The only day the produce stand closed early.
Of course, she helped with the family business. “I never wanted to not work,” she said. “And I always enjoyed working with John.”
Before their boys were born, the couple managed a convenience store in Hastings, Pa. In 1964, they followed her sister to Florida and bought a bar called Burkey’s Tavern in St. Petersburg. Her older son Jim, 70, remembers his mom dropping him off at baseball practice, then heading to manage the bar. Her younger son, Bob, 66, said she was always there for them, but always worked late. Even on Sundays, when the bar was closed, his parents would go there to clean.
It was never about owning a bar, she said. No one in her family is a drinker. It was about owning a business that made people happy -- and would pay off.
“With produce, you have a short shelf life. You lose a lot of inventory,” she said. “Liquor never goes bad.”
In 1968, while their sons were still in school, she and her husband bought a liquor store in Seminole. They sold it in 1976 and used some of the proceeds to send their boys to college. They also took their first real vacation: to Italy.
“Then we started worrying about our boys. What would they do?” she said. “What would our grandkids do?”
So she and her husband bought a paint shop, 600-square-feet on a two-lane road to the Corey Causeway. They turned it into Pasadena Liquors in 1980 and eventually grew it to include 6,200 feet. They added Valenty’s Lounge on the back. Then a sprawling wine cellar on the front.
Valenty learned all the customers’ faces and drinks — and most of their names. She knew when they were celebrating anniversaries and graduations, when they were having company. She sold champagne to christen boats and babies.
When her husband got cancer in 1988, Valenty cared for him for two years. Weeks after he died, she was back behind the cash register.
“Mom has always taken care of everyone,” said Jim. “That’s what she does. That’s why people love her.” There are liquor stores across the street now on two corners, at Winn-Dixie and Publix. “But every day, people still stop in here to see Mom.”
In that cramped office, two steps above the store floor, Valenty adds receipts from the day before, logs credit card purchases, subtracts taxes, records everything in skinny black Sharpie, in right-slanting handwriting, in a green ledger. On shelves above her, identical books date to 1968. To her right, there’s a computer she never turns on. And an adding machine she only uses to check herself, after calculating everything — twice — in her mind.
Around her, on every wall, faded photos smile.
There’s John, at the Seminole store, beside a sign offering half a gallon of Scotch for $4.99. There’s Jim playing over-40 league baseball. Yellowed obits of old friends. And all seven of her grandkids -- portraits from kindergarten through college. Thanks to the family liquor store, they all have degrees and careers.
“And no one wants to run this place,” she says. “Which is fine. I’m still here.”
At 12:30, she folds all the receipts into the black pouch and drives to the bank. Her driver’s license, she brags, is valid for six more years.
“My friend Marianne, she’s only 90. But she needs someone to drive her,” Valenty says. “The bartender would pick her up on her way here every day, and she’d get a hot dog and a Bud bottle. We’d always have a chat. But now that the bar is closed, she can’t get here. I miss her.”
While Jim carries boxes of rum to a minivan and Bob bags tequila and margarita mix at the counter, she cashes payroll checks for customers who don’t have bank accounts. “Here you go, my dear. Wait, is that it?” she asks a woman, after counting out $277. The woman, who works as a maid, has been cashing her checks at the liquor store for years, and usually nets $500 a week. With the coronavirus, she tells Valenty, more people are home, and so many are scared. Few folks want their houses cleaned.
“I worry about you,” Valenty says. “Let me know if you need anything.”
An hour later, another woman comes into the store, calling: “Hiya Mom! Where are you?” Valenty waves from the office. Donna Royster and her husband walk to the window. “We’re getting Crown Royal to drop off for a birthday present, since we can’t celebrate here,” Royster says. She’s 70, a regular at the lounge. “We’re all on a group text, every morning, 20 of us or more, trying to stay close. Without this place. Without you.”
Royster and her husband, Ike, 72, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at Valenty’s. “When we moved here, we didn’t have any friends,” she says. “Here, we found a big family.”
As the clock nears 2 p.m., Jim asks: “All right, Mom. You almost ready?” She isn’t.
An hour later, Bob prods again. “You’re getting close, here, Mom? Time to go.”
Valenty has lived alone for the last 30 years. She doesn’t take any medications, except aspirin. She can’t remember the last time she saw a doctor. She counts down the weeks until her next great-grandchild is born. At the end of each day, her sons have to make her leave the store.
“I cook. I clean. Sometimes, I have a glass of Zinfandel while I watch the news,” she says. “But I already washed the sheets, flipped the mattress, did what I have to do this week. If I died tomorrow, it would be fine. I’ve lived my life.”
For weeks, her sons, grandkids and customers have been telling her to stay home. She keeps telling them, “I am.”