Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty’s turf is a uniquely bad place to launch a corner liquor store.
On a Saturday night in late April, I alight upon a small grocery store on lower Georgia Avenue NW with a sign reading “Beer & Wine.” As I begin strolling the aisles, the store’s owner yells out, “No beer.” I haven’t asked for beer, nor am I looking for any.
Proprietor Robert Taylor, however, is a master of pre-emption. He’s used to seeing customers wandering around before asking where the booze is. K&D Grocery & Deli, a small, well-lit convenience market, doesn’t have a liquor license. Although the market’s previous owner held a Class B license allowing the sale of beer and wine, Taylor says that he’s been unable to procure a transfer of the license since he bought the store, 18 months ago.
Taylor, 35, says that beer and wine sales would help his struggling new business stay afloat. “I’m paying the bills and not much more,” Taylor says.
Beleaguered merchants such as Taylor often appeal to their councilmembers in such situations. But Taylor’s rep is Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty, a first-termer who has made crusading against neighborhood liquor stores his signature issue. In fact, Taylor, who is a lifelong Brightwood resident, says that instead of helping him, Fenty’s office “has a different agenda.”
Taylor is correct in thinking that Fenty will do what he can to prevent K&D from selling alcohol willy-nilly. Fenty is the driving force behind the push to ban single-container beer and wine sales in Washington, which he sees as a cause of many urban ills.
Fenty says that the sale of singles of cheap wine, beer, and malt liquor lubricates a slippery slope: Single containers lead to loitering and public drunkenness, which then “lead to open-air drug markets in front of [corner stores], which in turn has led to a spate of violence in those areas.”
Previous efforts by Fenty to ban single-container sales have died at the D.C. Council, primarily because of resistance from local merchants, but he says that he plans to move two pieces of emergency legislation in July that would enact bans in his ward and the District.
Fenty says that lax alcohol regulations have led to a surplus of Class B liquor-license holders on Georgia Avenue and in other troubled parts of the city. He says that some markets make more than 50 percent of their revenue on single-beer sales and that the amount of booze sold in his ward is “not humane.” And although Fenty acknowledges that some of the targeted corner stores are responsible community fixtures, he says that any market that goes under because of a ban on single-sales of beer and wine won’t be missed.
“You’ve got to be able to tell the community that you’re going to sell more than beer and liquor,” Fenty says. “If any business can lend nothing to the community other than the sales of alcohol singles, that’s not the type of business my constituents are interested in.”
Fenty cites the Uneeda Market at Georgia Avenue and Webster Street, a few blocks north of Taylor’s store, as the textbook example of the mom-and-pop store gone bad. He says that the corner in front of the market is a mess, replete with loitering, boozing, litter, and drug paraphernalia.
On two recent weekend nights, the Uneeda is definitely a gathering place, but so is the adjacent bus stop. Several teenage boys hang out in front of the market, and inside there is a formidable lineup of rotgut wines and malt liquor 32- and 40-ouncers. But sugar keeps pace with alcohol, because the Uneeda does a brisk business in soft drinks and candy.
There are no obvious signs of drug use or sales, and the only visible consumption on the premises occurs when a young man downs a Capri-Sun and a bag of barbecue potato chips and dumps the remains in the empty case of beer that serves as a makeshift trash can.
The Uneeda’s owner says that he’ll be closing in a couple of months, when his lease expires. Fenty hopes that the absence of markets such as Uneeda will help reduce the drug problems that street congregations on Georgia Avenue can bring.
At K&D Grocery, Taylor says he keeps the curb clear of loiterers. On one weekend night, he parks himself on a chair in front of the store and greets most of the stream of both young and old patrons personally as they stop by the store to pick up snacks.
Taylor says he understands Fenty’s goal of cleaning up the community and says he can handle not selling single containers of
alcohol, but he asks why Ward 4 merchants should be subject to regulations that
don’t apply to grocery owners in other neighborhoods.
“I want to be part of the new D.C.,” Taylor says.
And Taylor would like the new D.C. to include at least some revenues from liquor. But before K&D can deliver on the promise of its sign, it needs to resolve a liquor-license snafu with the ABC board. “I just want to do what I need to do to get the license legally and properly,” says Taylor. “The license still belongs to the business; I don’t understand what the problem is.”
Ronald Austin, the director of constituent services in Fenty’s office, says the previous owner of Taylor’s market placed the liquor license in safekeeping, an ABC mechanism whereby the license holder pays a fee to hold on to an inactive license. Austin says that too much time has expired since the last fees were paid on the K&D license.
“According to the ABC, the last time there was any activity on the license was in ’99,” Austin says. “So there’s no license to transfer.”
That’s one less liquor outlet for Fenty to fell. The councilmember says that “better leadership” would have prevented the excessive number of Class B liquor licenses that were issued on Georgia Avenue. He says that many corner markets built their businesses around liquor licenses that shouldn’t have been granted in the first place.
“On Wisconsin Avenue, you don’t have the concentration of beer and liquor stores that you have on Georgia Avenue,” Fenty says. “Establishments that are community-minded will find a way to survive [a single-container ban].”
But cracking down on beer and wine sales isn’t the only challenge the new D.C. is throwing at Taylor. His corner market must compete with chains such as Safeway and the Texaco and Shell minimarkets, all a couple of blocks from K&D.
If Taylor is stuck with a permanently dry market, he says his backup plan is to open a sandwich counter at the store. He says his business can probably survive without beer and wine, but he adds, “I like my chances with it better.” CP