Even small neighborhood stores are getting raided by coronavirus hoarders
Marlon Chavarria held his pants as he ran over to the tiny yellow store named Glady’s 98 Cents and Up and grabbed the three cases of toilet paper from his mother in-law. He carried them over to his white SUV and stuffed them inside the trunk with other groceries.
“It’s like the end of the world out here,” the 37-year-old said. “You can’t find anything.”
Since 7 a.m. the Compton resident had gone to almost every supermarket and big box retailer in a vain search for toilet paper. Even after waiting three hours in line to get into one store, Chavarria walked out dispirited and empty handed.
Early evening, his luck changed. His mother-in-law told him about a local so-called “98 cent” store in South Los Angeles that, miraculously under the circumstances, seemed to have everything. And that’s how he ended up with toilet paper in the trunk of his SUV and a smile on his face.
“Time to go home where it’s safe,” he said.
Far from the Walmarts and Targets and Ralphs and countless other supermarkets and big box retailers, at least in scale and square footage, liquor stores, tiny markets and small neighborhood stores are beginning to see coronvirus panic buying and stockpiling. As popular retailers struggle to maintain stocks of water, household items, groceries and sanitizing products, people like Chavarria hope the small businesses in mostly working class neighborhoods are just off the radar enough to hold the items running out seemingly everywhere else.
When the coronavirus outbreak started in the United States, shoppers began purchasing face masks and hand sanitizer, clearing out the shelves of their local pharmacies and grocery stores. Health experts warned that stocking up on the disposable masks could do more harm than good by limiting their availability to doctors and nurses.
During a congressional hearing last month, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield told Congress there was no need for healthy Americans to stock up on supplies. But as fear of the coronavirus spread deeper into communities, people began to rush for items they felt they needed.
Meanwhile, major school districts throughout California, including Los Angeles Unified, announced shutdowns Friday, joining at least `12 states that have ordered complete closures amid escalating attempts to slow the virus’ spread. The growing number of people staying home is expected to intensify the stockpiling.
Inside the Glady’s 98 Cent and Up Store in South Los Angeles, residents made their way down narrow aisles, grabbing canned food and toilet paper. Handbags, backpacks and blankets hung from the ceiling, largely untouched. Behind a plexiglass wall, wearing latex gloves, Gladys Colchado, the store owner, rang up customers.
The 59-year-old said she didn’t think she would be impacted by people coming in trying to buy things in bulk. Then, a man walked in three days ago, snatched up all the antibacterial wipes she had and bought them all.
“I was stunned,” she said. “I didn’t think about putting limits on people because I thought well, he’s paying for it, but that’s changed.
The Spanish government is set to restrict people from leaving their homes except under limited circumstances to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“I want everyone to have things,” she added.
Colchado said she has limited customers to three cases of toilet paper each. She said it won’t be long before she runs out and she won’t be able to easily restock. Even the wholesaler told her he’s having trouble keeping up with demand from smaller stores. She’s even seen business owners fighting over toilet paper whenever she goes to pick some up. She’s run out of antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer.
“You can’t find that anywhere,” she said.
Colchado said she’s had to pass down the cost of toilet paper, rubbing alcohol and other items to her customers. She’s felt bad about it given that her store is in a low-income neighborhood. Typically, she would give credit to people who are short on cash but she’s had to put that on hold for now.
“I just have no idea what will happen,” she said. “It’s getting harder to charge things at 98 cents.”
Would she be changing the store’s name to reflect that?
“No, that’s why we say 98 cents and up,” she said, chuckling.
A mile away, at Angel’s Mini Market, things were a lot quieter. The shelves were full of tuna and vegetable cans. Bags of rice, pasta and beans were starting to grow scarce.
Inside, Gloria Bernal, 61, wore latex gloves as she sat behind the counter. Nearby, her 2-year-old granddaughter, Emma, ran around the store.
Bernal said the store has continued to see the same flow of customers buying eggs, milk and bread as they normally do. Around 8 p.m. a frustrated Mary Hensley, 53, walked into the store. She was just at the nearby discount store — Crazy Q Bargain — around the corner.
“You can’t find nothing,” she said. “This is really crazy. It don’t make any sense.”
Hensley said she was looking to purchase cans of food, tissue and water. But she kept striking out. Now she was at the mini store.
“If it wasn’t for mom’s here we’d all be messed up,” she said, referring to Bernal.
Hensley’s frustration ebbed a bit when she saw Emma.
“This is another reason why I like coming here, her grandchildren,” she said. “She’s so cute.”
Nearby at Crazy Q Bargain, the shelf-stable food was nearly gone, but there were still cans of pasta, beans, pineapple, tomato and sweet peas. There were more bags of garbanzo beans than pasta. At the front of the store, boxes once filled with jugs of bleach were nearly empty.
More than half a mile away, at the corner of Vermont Avenue and 88th Street, Alex Villalta, 43, walked into Monarch Liquor and Market. He wandered down the cleaning-products aisle and snatched up three bottles of antibacterial sprays.
Villalta had been to various stores trying to find the spray bottles. He was driving home to El Segundo and saw “market” and decided to give it a try.
“Little stores like this thankfully still have some things that other big stores don’t have,” he said with a smile. “There’s places that don’t even have bottled water.”
Behind Plexiglas, cashier Kim Hong, 58, said he’s been getting customers who were previously shopping at the bigger retailers such as Costco and Walmart.
“They come to buy water, pasta, toilet paper and Lysol.”
He said the store was down to their final cases of toilet paper and antibacterial spray and would not be able to stock soon.
“Whatever is in here,” he declared, “that’s it.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.