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Coffee or Teetotaling?

The early crowd at Mount Pleasant’s convenience stores lines up for juice, newspapers—and a chance to criticize beer sales.

If you believe Mount Pleasant’s civic leaders, the guy in line at the Brown Street Market on a June Monday morning is a menace to society.

It’s 8:15 a.m., and Gerald Jackson, a 40-year-old Capitol janitor who has just finished his graveyard shift, waits behind a middle-aged women in a blue pinstriped business suit and a gaggle of kids on their way to school. The woman buys a Washington Post and a pack of Marlboro Lights before scooting out the door. The kids, meanwhile, count out pennies for soda and bubble gum.

The kids empty out, leaving store owner Kay Kim alone with the menace. Jackson looks over his shoulder as Kim rings up his purchase. There’s a pack of Newport 100s—OK so far. But then there’s the six-pack of Miller Lite.

As Kim turns her back, Jackson thrusts his right hand into a pocket. It emerges holding a $10 bill. Kim thanks him for his business.

“It’s Miller time,” Jackson says, stepping outside into the morning heat. “I worked all night, and what I want right now is a nice ice-cold beer.”

All in all, it’s a pretty ordinary morning at the store, a friendly neighborhood place with pictures of local kids posted above its checkout counter. And for Kim, “ordinary” means a morning featuring no violence, no theft—and one solitary beer buyer amidst the rush for newspapers, cigarettes, and juice.

“I’m trying to carry a range of products for a range of people,” Kim says. “If they keep coming to my store, then I make them happy.” Kim says the few people who buy beer early are night-shift workers, like Jackson. And she says that if a noticeable drunk were to show up and intimidate any of her customers, she’d call the cops.

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As it turns out, though, Jackson’s early-morning six-pack sits at the center of one of the surrounding neighborhood’s thorniest political issues. For years, community leaders in Mount Pleasant have sought ways to rein in the sales of liquor that they say fuel the community’s large population of public drunks. They’ve worked with the police, invited in social workers, and waged war on what many see as an overabundance of Class B liquor licenses—the permits that allow stores like Kim’s to sell beer and wine.

But because merchants hold their liquor permits about as tightly as Elian Gonzalez’s Miami relatives clutched their prize nephew, anti-drunkenness activists have decided to take aim at a potentially easier target: early-morning alcohol sales. According to D.C. law, merchants may currently sell wine and beer between 8 a.m. and midnight. Over the past year, Mount Pleasant’s advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) has campaigned for things like an end to single-bottle alcohol sales as well as voluntary agreements by stores to stop selling booze at 10 p.m. and delay morning sales until 10 a.m. Such voluntary agreements would help the local stores secure ANC approval for license renewals.

“If I could accomplish one thing,” says ANC Chair Bill Mosley, “then it would be not allowing early-morning hours. And if they don’t sign a voluntary agreement, then the ABC [Alcoholic Beverage Control] Board will impose a solution.”

“We think it will increase the quality of life,” says ANC commissioner Laurie Collins, who is also a board member of the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Alliance, a community group that supports the delayed hours and other efforts to reduce sales. “By getting alcohol establishments to start selling later, maybe more people will go shopping in Mount Pleasant.”

A week’s worth of early-morning shopping on Mount Pleasant Street suggests that this latest shot in the booze wars may be a misfire. On a Wednesday morning at Best Way Supermarket, the only beer purchased before 10 a.m. is a six-pack of Budweiser bottles that a man accompanied by a pair of daughters clad in school uniforms is loading—alongside an entire grocery cart’s worth of goods—into the back seat of his Honda.

In line at the Samber Market on a Thursday morning, the lone beer buyer is a bartender who says he’s been up all night. He buys a Washington Post and a six-pack of Budweiser bottles. Then he heads home to catch the NBA playoff game that he videotaped the night before.

And across the street on the next Tuesday at the Argyle Convenient Store, only one early-morning menace—a carpenter in a tool belt—makes a beer buy before 10 a.m. “You see, only one beer customer all morning,” says co-owner Rocky Rakani, who is fighting the effort to cut four hours a day from beer and wine sales. “You saw him: Was he drunk? No, he’s a regular customer.”

The paucity of actual early-morning buyers, however, didn’t stop Mosley and other community leaders from invoking innocent schoolchildren at a June 5 ANC meeting and again at a June 7 status hearing before D.C.’s ABC Board regarding pending Class B license renewals in Mount Pleasant. “The prevalence of drinking is noticeable in what is otherwise a very pleasant neighborhood,” Mosley told the board. “This is a deterrent to people shopping in Mount Pleasant. It’s mostly noticeable on the commercial strip, and our concern is that people can consume alcohol before our children get into school.”

Even though those early-morning hours represent a small sliver of sales, merchants aren’t about to hop on the wagon without a fight. Deanna Bayer, who co-owns the Argyle with Rakani, her husband, says she expects no agreement on sales restrictions. “We’re not violating the law,” says Bayer, who co-chairs the local business association’s ABC subcommittee. “What we do take issue with is them saying that we have affected property values. Well, property values in Mount Pleasant are soaring.”

Bayer, of course, may have more to fear from restrictions on late-night sales. Her store and David Jafari’s Mount Pleasant Street Deli are the strip’s only two establishments that stay open—and sell liquor—until midnight. “What’s the problem?” Jafari asks just before the stroke of 12 one night, as a steady stream of customers arrive to buy beer.

Jafari says that 16 hours of daily beer sales was one of many factors that helped lure him into the local grocery-store business. “When I applied for my license, they told me what the hours were. If they reduce our hours, then the business will go to them or to other neighborhoods—or to the guys selling beer out of their cars. Everywhere you go in the city, people drink. Why should we be singled out?”

Early the next morning, though, the beer business is gone—even without any singling out by local activists. At the Argyle, the regular crowd of shoppers lines up for newspapers, cigarettes, and Hostess breakfast cakes. There are only two early drinkers in the day’s crowd: A middle-aged man with a 40-ounce bottle of Olde English malt liquor asks for a dozen scratch tickets from the D.C. Lottery. No luck. He skulks out the door quietly. The next customer, though, really might be a menace. He’s drunk and drooling and sports a purple-and-yellow shiner. “I am sorry,” says Rakani. He refuses him service. CP