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Liquor Store Owner Undeterred by Push for Midnight Closings

By Hamil R. Harris
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page C04

In 1985, Amrik and Ravinder Melhi moved into a Riverdale apartment complex with the goal of someday owning their own home and their own business. After several years of working long hours in convenience stores, the couple purchased an abandoned liquor store on Branch Avenue in Temple Hills.

"My dream was to make a living and settle down in this country," said Amrik Melhi, 47, who emigrated from India. He and his wife are Sikhs and do not drink alcohol, but the liquor store seemed to offer them a way to achieve their dream.

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"We were looking for a business, and we felt that it was a good business to run," said Melhi, who transformed several other abandoned retail spaces into businesses after opening his first liquor store.

For almost a decade, Melhi and family members bought boarded-up retail space in Prince George's and surrounding counties, turning them into fast food, liquor and light grocery stores. Today, he and his family members own nearly a dozen food and liquor establishments across Maryland.

In 1995, the Melhis made their most ambitious acquisition when they paid $1 million to purchase Tic Toc Liquors, a package store and restaurant, at University Boulevard and Riggs Road in Hyattsville. That was the most money the Melhis had spent on a property, but they thought they were getting a prize, because the big box was a landmark and one of the largest liquor stores in the state.

As a liquor retailer, Tic Toc has been successful. And a lot of that success has been because of its location and hours. Close to the District border, where liquor stores are required by law to close at midnight, Tic Toc and other neighboring Maryland liquor stores that remain open until 2 a.m. have been the places for late-night revelers to go.

But maybe not for much longer.

Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) argued during the recent state legislative session that the county should not be the regional depot for alcohol sales after midnight. Liquor stores such as the Melhis' Tic Toc were drawing a late-night clientele that often brought trouble, critics said. The legislature agreed and passed a bill in the final hours of the session requiring stores to stop selling alcohol after midnight.

The bill is on the desk of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).

Melhi said that he has worked hard to run a safe establishment and that Johnson's bill would only lead to illegal liquor sales and "bootlegging."

"My store is like a mini police station. I pay [off-duty] police officers $30 an hour to be in my store," Melhi said, adding that he paid more than $100,000 last year to officers guarding his store.

He is the first to admit, however, that the business in which he works can sometimes be dangerous. There was a stabbing outside Tic Toc recently. And since Melhi took over the business, he has been robbed four times and stabbed once.

"It is very hard. In 1995, I was in D.C. General for one month and seventeen days after I was stabbed," said Melhi, adding that neither the crime nor a new law would deter him from running his business.

"I just want to be somebody," he said. "I will keep working and working. We will survive."

Still, Melhi admits to looking beyond selling liquor for a living. "I am trying to get a different type of business," he said. "I might purchase a carwash."

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