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Liquor Store Controversy Has No Easy Answers

Of all the liquor stores in Los Angeles that should be closed, you’d think Tom’s, at the corner of Florence and Normandie avenues, would head the list.

The cops say drug users and drunks crowd the parking lot, drinking Colt 45 and Olde English from 16-ounce cans, causing trouble and wrecking the neighborhood. From here and similar places, drunks and troublemakers sallied forth into the infamous intersection and started the 1992 riot.

So when I set out last Thursday to do a column about Tom’s, I had pretty much decided my approach. But the thing about journalism is that you may start out with one idea and wind up with something different.

Preconceived notions fade in the process of reporting--reading documents, interviewing people and meeting them face to face.

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My idea seemed simple. I had recently been sent an excellent book called “Reporting On Violence, a Handbook for Journalists,” written by Jane Stevens and published by the Berkeley Media Studies Group.

Based on research by U.S. Public Health physicians, it recommended that journalists treat violence as an epidemic, the same way they do lung cancer and heart disease. Reporters, the book said, should investigate the causes of the epidemic, instead of recording murders and robberies as unrelated acts.

One of the chapters told of the efforts of a South-Central Los Angeles group, the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment, to close down liquor stores on the grounds that they were magnets for drug users and violent crime.

I had been reporting on the coalition’s crusade for more than a year. It so happened that the group was appearing Thursday at a hearing on a request for the city to close down Tom’s.

Bingo, I thought. A great column attacking the liquor stores.

I drove to Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas’ South-Central Los Angeles office, where the hearing was being held. The room was packed with opponents of Tom’s, and with customers and employees who supported the store.

Ridley-Thomas led the attack against the store. He said, “The residents [of the neighborhood] are not prohibitionists, they are not against small business. They simply want relief from the negative impact this particular liquor store has on the community.”

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Defending the store, a customer said, “I go in there with a smile and I go out with a smile.” Attorney Stephen Jones, representing the store, said, “We have an operation that is clean as can be and certainly as clean as an operation at Florence and Normandie can be.” Attorney Mary Lee, representing the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Treatment and Prevention, replied, “Florence and Normandie shouldn’t have to settle for this.”

Before returning to the paper, I drove to Florence and Normandie to talk with the owner. I wasn’t hopeful. I’m usually not welcomed at small businesses under such attack.

The parking lot was quiet on this particular afternoon, although I didn’t take this as evidence that it was always peaceful. I presented my card to the man at the counter and he disappeared into a back room. After a while, he emerged and asked me to follow. We walked through a crowded storeroom, following an aisle formed by cases of cheap malt liquor. He showed me into a small, stuffy office where Reiko Suzuki was seated behind a desk. She and her husband, Tom, own the place.

She and Tom are immigrants from Japan who met in an English class at Pasadena City College. Tom was a gardener. They bought a half share of a South-Central liquor store 26 years ago. They have owned other stores in the area, but now operate only this one.

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It’s a good place, she said. Her nephew, who works behind the counter, said tour buses bring foreign visitors to the epicenter of the riots and the visitors buy sodas at the liquor store. “It’s like Universal City or something,” he said proudly.

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Enough evidence was presented at the hearing to convince me that the store should be closed.

But what about the Suzukis? Mrs. Suzuki isn’t the villain I thought I would find at Tom’s Liquors. It’s hard not to sympathize with her pursuit of the immigrants’ dream.

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There are a lot of layers to this story, and no easy answers. I’ll think about it when I’m on vacation. See you next month.


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