The looters came in through the back. They pried open a fence and tore the door off the frame, then stripped the shelves, smashed the ATM and busted open the cash registers.
“I can do nothing,” says Michael Ghebru, who owns Doc’s Liquors in Sandtown-Winchester. The neighborhood was Ground Zero during the April riots in Baltimore, following the death of Freddie Gray. One of the hardest things, says Ghebru, is that he recognized some of his own customers among the 50 or so looters, who tore through his store.
Luwam Gebrab (left) and Ghenet Ghergish at Doc’s Liquors
Ghebru, who came here from Eritrea, says he lost more than $75,000 worth of liquor and food that night. He has insurance, but if he applied for aid from the city he would be out of luck.
Doc’s is considered a non-conforming liquor store.
“They’re called nonconforming because it’s clear that they’re inconsistent with the neighborhood that they’re in,” says Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the mayor of Baltimore.
Zoning rules introduced in 1971, banned liquor stores in certain residential areas, but the 100 or so that were already there—like Doc’s—were allowed to stay. Rawlings-Blake’s administration has been pushing to close those stores. When the city offered emergency loans to businesses damaged in the riots, she excluded the 20 nonconforming liquor stores—unless they relocate or start selling something else, like fresh fruits and vegetables.
“I heard from the residents, I heard from business leaders, with a unified voice, that they did not want any city dollars to go towards reopening the nonconforming liquor stores,” Rawlings-Blake says.
One of those residents is Elder Clyde William Harris. He’s lived in Sandtown-Winchester for 65 years, and founded Newborn Holistic Ministries, a group fighting poverty in the neighborhood.
“Any corner where there is a liquor establishment, check those corners out. Hot spots in our community,” he says. “We do not need that.”
What they do need, residents say, are family restaurants and grocery stores. But those businesses can be expensive to start, and difficult to run. Liquor stores are relatively easy to manage and don’t require a big investment. Plus, alcohol has a high profit margin, and there’s a lot of demand.
The owners are often immigrant families from Korea, South Asia, and the Middle East, says Abraham Hurdle, a lawyer who represents several liquor store owners.
“The vast majority of them are small business owners working seven days a week, often, just to put food on the table, put their kids in college—just the same old American dream as everybody else,” he says. “To say they're responsible for all the problems that Baltimore has, it's just plain unfair.”
If only there weren’t so many of these businesses so close together, community activists say. They point to studies showing that high concentrations of liquor stores are associated with more violent crime and health problems.
Debra Furr-Holden is an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She drives me to the neighborhood of Park Heights in Northwest Baltimore. We pass block after block of boarded-up buildings and empty lots, until we come to a commercial strip with three cell phone stores, a fried chicken joint, and four liquor stores—with another on the corner of the next block.
“That creates a cluster of five liquor stores within a one-block area,” Furr-Holden says.
Doc’s Liquors from the outside.
One sells some groceries. Another has a small bar attached and sells pipes and herbal Viagra. But they have one thing in common. Nearly everything is behind a thick layer of bullet-proof plexiglass.
“So you literally can't touch the products, you can’t browse through the products,” she says. “I just think it's a very dehumanizing way to make purchases.”
Behind the glass at Doc’s Liquors in Sandtown-Winchester, a cashier does a steady business selling sodas and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Plenty of booze passes through, too.
Owner Michael Ghebru says he doesn’t feel great about selling liquor to obviously desperate people on a weekday morning, but he says shutting down a few stores won’t change Baltimore.
“The problem is not liquor stores, that I believe,” he says. “Everybody knows the problem.”
It’s the lack of jobs, he says.
In this neighborhood, more than half of working-age people are unemployed. Ghebru plans to stay in business even without help from the city, but stores like his face a longer-term threat. Baltimore is in the midst of its first zoning overhaul in more than 40 years, which could force nonconforming liquor stores to stop selling alcohol.