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Wednesday, August 23, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Stores consider cheap-beer ban costly

Seattle Times staff reporter

Amare Taye staked his claim to the American Dream when he opened a small convenience store in Seattle's Central Area.

After fleeing Ethiopia in 1984, he washed dishes for $3 an hour, drove cabs and forklifts and changed bedpans as a nurse's assistant. All those years of hard work were worth it when, in 1998, he bought King's Deli at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and East Cherry Street.

It is a small store, just a few rows of candy and chips and coolers stocked with beer and soda. You can find Taye behind the counter nearly every day starting at 7 a.m. until closing at 10 p.m. Normally cheerful and chatty, he greets many customers by name.

But these days Taye is a worried man. He thinks the government is trying to put him out of business.

Prodded by complaints from increasingly upscale Seattle neighborhoods, the Washington State Liquor Control Board is mulling new rules that would yank half the beers and wines from Taye's coolers. Steel Reserve, Olde English "800," Thunderbird — 34 cheap beers and fortified wines in all — would be banned.

"They're going to push me to the curb. I really have no idea what I am going to do," Taye says, waving his hands and speaking in a rapid, angry staccato. "I think about it when I sleep. I think about it when I walk around. I think about it when I am with my family."

The proposed booze ban would cover six square miles of Seattle, including downtown, Capitol Hill, Chinatown International District, the Central Area and University District. It's an experiment aimed at shooing street drunks out of those neighborhoods, designated as alcohol-impact areas (AIAs) by the liquor board because of their high rate of complaints about street drinking.

Big grocery stores like QFC and Safeway have accepted the rules with a shrug, and there is no organized lobby of malt-liquor drinkers. That's left the convenience stores as the only real opponents. Virtually all who have protested at recent public hearings were immigrant store owners from South Korea and East Africa.

They feel singled out. After all, the beers and wines on the city's proposed ban list will remain legal almost everywhere else in the city and state.

"I wouldn't mind if it was countywide. Why Cherry Street? Why Capitol Hill?" says Aklilu Mekuria, who owns Tana Market, named after the largest lake in Ethiopia. He points to the sidewalk outside his tidy store, at 25th Avenue and East Cherry Street, just up the street from Taye's place.

"Look around. How many beers do you see? How many people do you see drinking outside?" Mekuria says.

This afternoon, there is no sign of the panhandling or public drinking that has prompted the city's crackdown. A recent city report indicates few complaints about public drinking in his immediate neighborhood.

Like Taye, Mekuria fled Ethiopia's communist regime in the 1980s in search of a better life. Both men became U.S. citizens in the 1990s. Mekuria's store is larger, and he sells imported African coffee pots and dishes in addition to the usual convenience-store wares. But without the beer, Mekuria figures he'll close.

Jordan Royer, public-safety adviser to Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, acknowledges some stores might close if the new rules are approved by the liquor board, but he thinks most will adjust. He pointed to a Korean American-owned store downtown whose owners recently testified that business went up after they stopped selling beers and wines favored by homeless drunks.

"Change is hard, and I think this is probably a business plan that seems to work, so they don't want to change," Royer said.

It's easy to see why Mekuria is worried. Thumbing through his recent invoices, he displays orders for dozens of cases of malt liquor each week. He stocks pricier beers, too, but they move much more slowly, if at all. Mekuria says customers often come in to buy cheap beer and then grab a snack, too.

One of the best sellers is Steel Reserve, a malt liquor sold in distinctive black and red cans. One 24-ounce can costs $1.39 at Mekuria's store, and at 8.1 percent alcohol packs the punch of four shots of whiskey.

Mekuria acknowledges a few of the people who buy the beer at his store are street alcoholics. But most of his customers are just "low-income working people who can't afford the other beer."

Supporters of the ban say convenience stores can survive — and maybe even attract new customers — by selling other products.

"If these grocery stores sold groceries, I would shop there. As it is I am all stocked up on cheap booze, cigarettes and lottery tickets," said Kevin Boze, a Central Area resident for the past five years. Boze is upset at a store near his home, which has had a reputation for people hanging out drinking nearby.

At a public hearing in December, one woman suggested convenience stores could sell fresh flowers and bread instead of malt liquor.

The store owners scoff at such suggestions, and say they're being pushed out by the delicate sensibilities and political clout of white yuppies who have come in recent years, altering the historic character of the Central Area as a lower-income, African-American neighborhood.

As Taye puts it: "This is happening because Bellevue people move here, I'm telling you."

Taye has an extra reason to be upset. He points out that the boundary of the city's proposed AIA ends right at his store, where the Central Area starts to give way to the wealthier Madrona neighborhood.

"If there is no discrimination, why didn't they go all the way to the water?" he says, gesturing toward Lake Washington.

Royer said the city is not trying to hurt immigrant store owners. He said he has met with many store owners and has tried to get them to accept the new rules voluntarily for the good of the neighborhood. Most refused, prompting the city to seek to make the booze ban mandatory.

The city drew up the AIA boundary relying on data from complaints about public drinking and litter. But the data show very few calls about such problems in the area around Mekuria and Taye's stores. In fact, the rate of alcohol-related calls is much higher in Ballard, which is not part of the proposed AIA.

Royer said the AIA boundary is focused on the central core of the city for now but could be expanded to other neighborhoods if problems emerge there.

The liquor board will meet today to hear staff recommendations on the AIA proposal but is not expected to make a final decision until later this summer. The meeting will be held at the liquor board's Seattle distribution center at 4401 E. Marginal Way, starting at 2 p.m.

The board could decide Seattle officials have overreached. The three-member panel has the power to alter or reject any of the city's recommendations.

That's what happened the last time the city tried to create a "banned product" list in Pioneer Square in 2003. The liquor board granted only lesser restrictions: halting sales of fortified wines but allowing beer sales to continue — just not in single containers. A recent city report said that approach has not been effective, in part, due to the small size of the Pioneer Square AIA.

Royer and other city officials say the wider ban will prove more successful at dispersing street alcoholics.

But Taye hopes the government will think of some other way to deal with the problem.

"There is no country without homeless. We don't make them to be panhandlers. The system makes them to be panhandlers," he says. "Why come after us? What kind of city is this?"

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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