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Hunkered down on the corner of 10th and F Streets NW, Red Fox fancies itself at war. But the sprawling hiphop clothing store isn’t taking up arms over the crime-plagued, decaying F Street corridor, where it lost about $26,000 in an armed robbery last year, or even the accumulation of trash piled like a snowdrift against a deserted building across the street. Red Fox’s archenemy is closer to home; in fact, he sets up camp every morning on its doorstep.
“All the tourists around here are afraid to come in,” says the owner of Red Fox, who is named (unluckily enough) David Duke. The deterrent, according to Duke, is a sidewalk vendor who peddles his wares, primarily T-shirts, a few yards from the store’s entrance. Duke says the vendor, Jeff Barbour, scares Red Fox patrons off with an aggressive sales pitch that includes grabbing shoppers and tugging them toward his table, and haranguing them to support his “black-owned business.” (Duke is white.) A stone’s throw away from tourist magnets like
the Hard Rock Cafe, Ford’s Theatre, and the FBI building, Red Fox has weathered
a 40-percent drop in sales
over the past yearall, Duke suggests, fuming, because of Barbour.
“It’s a war,” declares Duke, who says he was once a commander in the Israeli army. “They’ve got a license to kill, not a license to vend….I feel like sometimes I’m back in Lebanon.”
So far the body count rests at zero, but that may be mere happenstance. Late last month, Barbour and a Red Fox worker, Badr Elarch, were carted off to jail after a fistfight erupted in front of the store.
“[Barbour and a crony] jumped me. I picked up a chair, defending myself,” says Elarch, a lanky 20-year-old in an orange basketball jersey.
The next day, according to store manager Majid Elmaliki, Barbour sauntered in with another man”a very dangerous homeless guy”and made a big show of handing his companion $25 while pointing out Elmaliki and Elarch. The would-be hit man hasn’t yet made his move, but the Red Fox sales crew is jittery nonetheless. Elmaliki says several employees have taken to leaving through the back door.
Von Spencer, a burly guy who says he provides security for Barbour’s stand, tries to interest me in a blue T-shirt adorned with a pair of bucking horses as soon as I set foot on the sidewalk. I decline and inquire about last month’s fight. Spencer characterizes the skirmish as “a misunderstanding.”
“It might have been a practical joke or something,” he offers. “It was nothing big. They’re pretty cool; they’re good people [at Red Fox].”
But Spencer grows visibly anxious when his boss glances over. “[Barbour] might say things that you don’t like,” Spencer cautions in a whisper. “You might get disrespect.”
“Everything’s cool, though,” he announces loudly as Barbour approaches. “I just told her [the fight] was a misunderstanding. I was just telling her everything’s cool, right?”
Sporting plaid shorts and a white tank top, Barbour stands well under 6 feet tall. If he grabbed the meaty forearms of any of the huge men who frequent Red Fox, they could probably fling him clear across the street without breaking a sweat. But this is in fact the sidewalk terror Duke is crazy over, wearing a glittery gold medallion that reads, “JEFF.” A glimpse at his vendor ID reveals that his full name is Jeffrey Barbour, but he covers it up as soon as he sees me reading it. (“I’m Jeff. That’s all the information you need to know,” he says later.)
Barbour says the brawl with Elarch sprang from a business dispute, plain and simple. “A lady asked for some [size] 36 shorts,” he says. She was apparently browsing merchandise at Red Fox, which sometimes displays clothes on outdoor tables. “They had to go inside and get it,” Barbour says. “I told her I had them here….I showed her mine and she wanted mine.”
When he emerged from the store, Barbour says, Elarch was miffed at the lost sale. He started “talking that punk shit” and then picked up a chair and threw it at the vendor, according to Barbour.
The June skirmish was not the police’s first visit to Red Fox. Both Duke (who says he has called the police “thousands of times”) and Barbour (who says the police drop by almost every evening) are unhappy with the response. Each suspects the other of currying police favor by passing out free sportswear to cops, though neither can substantiate the charges. An officer with the Metropolitan Police Department’s vending enforcement unit, who insists on anonymity, says the corner of 10th and F is the sole spot in the city where vendor-store relations have burst into violence. In his estimation, Barbour and his cronies are the source of the conflict.
“It’s not the people who own the store; it’s just the guy outside. He’s trying to take money away from the store,” he says, adding that he has seen Barbour grab people on their way into Red Fox. “He has a big mouth.”
According to the vending officer, Barbour just got his license. “I remember him when he wasn’t anything but a homeless individual working for someone else,” he says, chuckling. “I locked him up for vending without a license in the early part of the fall.”
Barbour claims he’s been vending from the same corner for seven years, long before Red Fox moved in three years ago. “They think that because they got a store, they got more rights than a vendor,” he says. “They lower their prices, try to hurt us. Then they say we try to sell counterfeit merchandise. When I was selling counterfeit stuff”a venture he says he quit last year “[Duke] had no problem with it. Now I’m selling legit stuff.”
“It’s like they’re jealous of us,” Spencer adds.
There’s not much to envy out on the scorching sidewalk: On a recent day, Barbour has one table and a smattering of plastic boxes featuring $15 T-shirts, a rack of shorts, and some jeans. There are none of the splashy scarves, sunglasses, or other accouterments that dangle from vending booths up the street. There is also no relief from the sun, prompting Barbour to set up a folding chair under Red Fox’s awning. Over the course of an hour, only one customer stops to make a purchase.
Inside, Red Fox’s business is steady. About 10 customers mill about the large air-conditioned store, which spans 935 to 941 F St. and is crammed with name-brand displays for Levis, Calvin Klein, Polo, and Timberland. Clearly, the retail store has got the better end of this stick.
But Duke is not one to leave it at that. Fed up with the vendor’s curbside decorum, which Duke contends includes strewing the sidewalk with gnawed chicken bones and taking leaks against the store’s back wall (Barbour’s bathroom privileges in Red Fox have long since been revoked), Duke is trying to get a city permit to erect a barrier of potted plants out front, a foliage blitzkrieg calculated to uproot the nettlesome vendor.
“They don’t want a black man to make no money,” Barbour complains. “I ain’t threatening him. I’m trying to do things the honest way and trying to make an honest living, so someday maybe I could move into a store like that.”
Barbour denies Duke’s allegations of customer-grabbing and defends his sales pitch on the grounds that “black people are supposed to support black business.” Spencer is even more direct in his gripe against Red Fox’s ownership: “Jews, man, they want to take over the city. We been here all our life. It’s not right.”
Although Barbour says he never threatened Red Fox employees, he admits he once took a picture inside the store of Duke and Elmaliki. But he says they took a picture of him first.
While we talk, I notice that his security guard Spencer models a fine pair of black sweat pants, a bright red shirt, and socks. He says the natty threads all came from Red Fox. He says he got a sweet deal.
“They got some nice stuff in there,” Spencer says. “It’s nothing personal, man. It’s business.”CP