Commentary: What Liquor Stores Do For Neighborhoods By THOMAS LORD

Tuesday December 20, 2005

In a recent to letter to the editor, Ted Vincent stakes out an interesting position about the South Berkeley liquor stores currently being pressured to change their way. I live less than a block from one of these stores and would like to take up the discussion he’s started. 

Ted argues: The troubled or troublesome liquor stores serve a vital function for the poorest of the poor, providing a walking-distance approximation of grocery stores. The owners tend to be kind (0 percent interest) lenders to their most needy customers. For all that, such stores would not be financially viable if they did not sell popular high-profit items like alcohol. 

I reply: The store near me, Black & White Liquors, is three blocks away from Berkeley Bowl and Walgreen’s. Food and household staples are available at those stores. The quality is higher and the price is lower. Berkeley Bowl sells beer at a lower price than Black & White. Black & White is also two blocks away from stores where cigarettes are less expensive. Therefore, Black & White’s unique commercial contributions to the neighborhood are (1) late-hours access; (2) hard alcohol; (3) (allegedly) short-term credit for needy customers; (4) the shopping experience of using a very tiny store rather than a relatively large one like Berkeley Bowl and Walgreen’s. 

That’s a mixed bag of offerings. I personally enjoy the small store experience and would enjoy the late hours access if they were from a store I felt comfortable supporting. I wholeheartedly agree that the credit system (whether or not Black & White actually participates) is (sadly) vital to many poor people and should not be run roughshod over and proprietors who offer that service are, in that small way, heroic. 

The reality, though, is far uglier. In the evening and late night hours Black & White, when its liquor license was intact, led to a number of ills. First, distinctly not poor people would speed down our 25 mph street quite recklessly at 40-plus mph. This would start in the after-supper hours when one would expect kids to be out playing on this otherwise quiet street and just get worse and worse as 2 a.m. approached. Second, a non-trivial subset of these patrons were quite messed up. I think the highlight of the past year in this regard was the woman trying to dowse the driver of the SUV that brought her with gasoline—evidently they had gotten into a drunken fight on their way to buy a last round of booze. The gasoline was a unique touch but a similar pattern played out on many occasions. Third, yes, poor people use the store and walk there. Yet since the liquor license has been suspended there has been to my eyes a distinct reduction in (apparently) poor people using neighboring buildings and lawns as a urinal or as the trash can in which to drop empty fifths and junk-food bags. Meanwhile, poor people who (for some reason) need to go there to buy a pint of expensive, low-quality milk on credit still have that option. (There’s only been one gunshot in the past few years so, by that metric, Black and White is doing well compared to some stores.) 

Ted frets about gentrification and calls for “subsidies” for mom and pop stores. What I have been told is that Black & White’s owner and proprietor is a major property owner in the area. As far as I can tell, his management of his property is stifling much needed development in the area. Your guess is as good as mine but I don’t think he’s suffering, liquor license or no, for want of subsidies. I think it would be an obscene insult to the poor to offer any. 

Public businesses are a public concern. Private rights of ownership and the opportunity to make profit are vital to our community. Yet when an owner exercises these private rights in a way that contradicts the public interest it is appropriate for the community to respond by exercising regulatory options. 

Ted, whatever the solution to chronic poverty is, I’m sure it does not involve cars speeding dangerously down otherwise quiet streets, perpetual littering and urination on people’s home’s and businesses, late night shouting matches between people on a bad drunken date, overpriced poor quality goods for sale on credit, occasional gunfire, the illegal wholesale purchase of bootleg liquor, and all of the other ills that have been visited upon our neighborhood. If resistance to those things is how you define “gentrification” then sign me up as a No. 1 gentrifier.