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“Mizz Newton, how are you?” chirps Hazel Liff from behind the cash register.
“Mizz Newton, how was that corned beef?” asks Hazel’s husband, Samuel Liff, almost simultaneously. He’s standing at the candy counter a few feet away.
“Oh, I’m fine,” 60-year-old Margaret Newton answers as she enters the Liffs’ market. Newton heads to the meat and fish counter at the back of the little store. “Oh, it was very good.”
It’s Thursday, Mizz Newton’s day to buy croakers, a soul-food staple that the Liffs pick up from a fishmonger once a week. “Every Thursday she buys like $12 in croakers,” says David Berkheimer, Hazel’s son and Sam’s stepson. It’s one of Newton’s quirks, like the squashed blue hat she’s wearing today, pulled close over untamed hair.
Berkheimer and his parents know a lot about Newton, a loyal customer for nearly 20 years. They know her husband Graham is a sports fan who used to gab about games with Albert Liff, Sam’s father. That was before Albert passed away in December, and before Graham’s diabetes got so bad he had to stay at home. (Sam special-orders sugar-free hot cocoa for the Newtons.) They know the Newtons live on 6th Street, only a couple of blocks from the Southeast Washington market.
And Margaret Newton knows she can call Sam and ask him to set aside certain items for her. “What do I like about them? I love their hospitality,” she says.
Sam’s grandfather, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, opened a store on the corner of Alabama Avenue and Randle Place SE in 1911. Eighty-five years later, Liffs still run it. Congress Heights, the store’s neighborhood, was once home to working- and middle-class whites. Now it’s nearly 100 percent African-American.
But what’s remarkable about Liff’s is how unremarkable that racial transformation has been for the shop’s owners and patrons. At a time when blacks and whites uncomfortably circle one another, business at Liff’s clips along. That’s not because the world of Liff’s is oblivious to racial realities. Rather, Liff’s is proof that in the everyday world of grocery shopping, race is less important than good service.
Black essayist James Baldwin once wrote, “It is bitter to watch the Jewish storekeeper locking up his store for the night, and going home. Going, with your money in his pocket, to a clean neighborhood, miles from you, which you will not be allowed to enter.” Baldwin was trying to explain the origins of anti-Semitism in certain reaches of black America.
But it is only an incidental fact that Sam Liff is Jewish—incidental ethnically because his wife and stepsons aren’t, and incidental in Baldwin’s terms because Liff doesn’t go miles away when he closes shop at 6:30 p.m. He goes upstairs.
Sam and Hazel have lived in a four-bedroom apartment connected to the store since 1970, a few months after they bought it in 1969. Liffs have lived and worked in this neighborhood since Sam’s grandfather William immigrated early this century. Sam’s father, Albert, was born in the District, grew up in the Liff’s building, attended Eastern High School, and worked most of his life at the market. On the Friday before Christmas last year, after his usual 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. day, he went upstairs and died of heart failure. He was 80. “It was like he’d done his work for the week, and that was it,” Sam says.
Now balding and bespectacled, Sam himself graduated from Anacostia High School. He and Hazel raised her children (his stepsons) above the store. “If someone tries to tell me, ‘You don’t belong here,’ well, I belong here more than they do,” Sam says.
But not many folks try to tell him that. Besides being locals, the Liffs are gracious shopkeepers. They greet customers warmly, place special orders, and occasionally spot the regulars a dollar or two. Plus, the Liffs run a clean shop with an ample inventory in a ward that has only one major grocery store, the Safeway off Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.
What’s more, “Sam is sort of a keeper of the neighborhood with regards to the senior population,” says Stephanie Lee, a longtime customer and member of the Congress Heights Community Association. “They remember when he was young, and now he’s helping them.”
Sam sometimes asks Lee or other community activists to help struggling customers. “He’ll say, ‘Can you get someone over there to check so-and-so out?’” says Lee.
Neighborhood people remember only one serious race-based flap at Liff’s. Last year, during the heated Ward 8 council campaign, someone peppered the area with fliers calling for a black boycott of Liff’s. “Stop!!!! Supporting Businesses That Don’t Respect You or Your Community,” the flier screeched. “Boycott Liff’s Market.”
Other leaflets, posted near the Liff’s fliers, called for a boycott of stores owned by Asian-Americans. Supporters of black nationalist candidate Malik Shabazz posted those fliers, which included Shabazz’s name. No one claimed responsibility for the Liff’s fliers.
A boycott never materialized, and Sam says business didn’t suffer. Even Oct. 16, the day of the Million Man March, “was a rather normal day,” Sam recalls. March organizer Louis Farrakhan had urged blacks to spurn white businesses that day. “People came in after the march to get a soda and a snack,” Sam says.
Five guys are standing in line at Liff’s, three of them holding 40-ouncers.
“What happened to that guy that got shot?” one of them asks, referring to a 20-year-old killed by D.C. police last month.
“What I’m hearing,” answers a man wearing an immense football jersey, “is that they lit his butt up. He says, ‘No, I’m cool,’ and they lit his butt up!”
The constant chatter at Liff’s often turns to crime. The store is part of the police department’s 7th District, which consistently reports more personal crime than any other D.C. police district. Local political activists say crime is the No. 1 issue for Ward 8 voters.
Sam worries about crime, too. He’s been robbed at gunpoint so many times in the last 27 years that “I’ve stopped counting,” he says with a resigned smile. “But I’m not glassed in,” he says, referring to his decision not to erect a plexiglass wall around the sales counter. “If it came to that, the crime situation would be so bad that I might have to leave.” No one has ever broken into Liff’s at night, mostly because a family member is always sleeping nearby. Sam and Hazel don’t vacation much.
The Liffs can’t ignore the realities of a community that sometimes seems to be crumbling around them. Time was, about half of their customers had accounts. They were neighborhood regulars who were billed for groceries each month. Many of their loyal patrons are now dead; others are infirm. “And a lot of our good customers have moved away”—mostly to the suburbs, Sam says. Only a dozen or so account-holders remain.
“Now we get a lot more food stamps than we used to,” Sam says. “The ward is getting poorer.”
About 25 percent of Liff’s business comes from selling beer and wine, much of it cheap booze like Thunderbird and 40-ounce beers. The Liffs have never sold drug paraphernalia, but demand for it has skyrocketed. “They come in and say, ‘You got any Blunts?’” Hazel says. “They’re rude about it, and the girls are worse than the guys.”
But the most prevalent sign of urban decay is the rise in crime against their customers. “You just can’t walk the streets,” Sam says. In a hopeful moment, he adds, “The neighborhood is pretty lousy in some ways, but there is a core that hasn’t let the bad element block them out. Hopefully that will last.”
The grocery business is changing along with the neighborhood. A couple of years ago, Sam applied for a deli license and began serving prepared foods—mostly hot dogs, half-smokes, and a few sandwiches—in order to compete with the popular, greasy carry-outs on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. No one cooks anymore, he says.
“People will pay me a dollar for a half-smoke, but not $2 for a half-pound of meat. It’s a junk-food world.”
The future of Liff’s looks uncertain. At 55 and 59, respectively, Sam and Hazel don’t plan to retire anytime soon. But the two sons who work there, David and Mark Berkheimer, haven’t expressed any interest in running the place. “I came here after the Marines, and when you’re here, you just get lost and stay here,” David says. He’s staying out of loyalty to his parents, he adds.
Unlike Sam and Hazel, David and his wife, Sabine, live an hour away in Annapolis, with their four daughters. David, 29, laughs when asked whether his daughters might run the store. “Oh, no. I don’t think girls could really…well, they’re just too nice, you know?”
For his part, 31-year-old Mark says he’s not sure what will happen when Sam gets too old to run Liff’s. Mark works as a home-improvement subcontractor when he’s not at the store. “Right now, I’m basically just an employee, even though it’s family,” he says. “I have other options. I’d like the store to stay in the family, but with the neighborhood changing and everything, you have to go day by day.”CP