A Liquor Store Makes It Back From Skid Row

Jeff Harrison of Modern Liquors has started having wine and cheese tastings at the store.
Jeff Harrison of Modern Liquors has started having wine and cheese tastings at the store. "This is what we waited all those years for," he said of the change in the area around Ninth and M streets NW. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, February 14, 2006

To make a living, Ed and Anna Fleming did whatever it took. When customers paid by pulling crumpled dollar bills out of their shoes, Ed and Anna would dip each buck into a big jug of green disinfectant. Half a dozen times a year, the place was held up. Anna had a gun pointed at her 15 times. Once, Ed was shot right through the groin. The bullet hole remains in the back wall.

Modern Liquors never generated the easy money associated with liquor stores. Not at Ninth and M streets NW. In the four decades since Ed Fleming bought the place, the city tore down blocks of rowhouses to build a college campus that never happened; homeless people were kept for years in trailers on a vast parking lot; the streets were closed off in the early 1990s to dig Metro tunnels; and the Flemings' block was turned into a construction site through the late '90s to put up the convention center.

Customers who managed to get to Modern tended to be winos and druggies. The bestsellers were 32-ounce bottles of King Cobra malt liquor, pints of Wild Irish Rose and half-pints of Velicoff vodka, Skid Row's finest.

Then, over the past few years, the storm surge of gentrification hit Shaw, just north of downtown Washington.

Velicoff sales have dropped from three cases a day to fewer than two a month. Jeff Harrison, the Flemings' son-in-law, has taken shelf space once devoted to items likely to be consumed in the public space and filled it instead with wine and cheese.

"Top-shelf liquors, fine wines, lots and lots of microbrews," says Harrison, who laments that Ed Fleming isn't around to witness the extent of the transformation. Ed died last year; Anna still mans the counter.

"My husband would never close," she says. "This was his life. After he was shot, right after he came out of the hospital, he opened up."

After the 1995 shooting, Ed finally did what he'd sworn he'd never do: He put the store on a war footing, adding a heavy metal security door, three-inch-thick bulletproof plexiglass and one of those carousels that permit transactions with zero physical contact.

A grim situation grew even harsher. Eleven businesses in the heart of Shaw died while the convention center rose. The Flemings let their staff go, but Modern Liquors muddled through, selling sandwiches and soup to construction workers.

Then, after the center opened, after the Flemings had taken a $100,000 loss over four years of construction, the neighborhood changed. Houses that had been left to rot for years started to sell for $600,000, $800,000, $1 million.

On blocks where the only foot traffic at night used to be the men who lived along the sidewalks, "now you see people walking over to the fitness place with their exercise mats under their arms," says Alexander Padro, who runs Shaw Main Streets, a neighborhood agency that supports small businesses.

In 2003, Harrison sawed off the grates over the liquor store's windows and reopened the aisles to customers, although they still must be buzzed through the security door. In 2004, the family held the first of what are now monthly wine tastings, which are drawing growing numbers of the newcomers who've turned historic Blagden Alley and Shaw's elegant 19th-century rowhouses into showcases of urban renewal. This year, Harrison has added cheese samplings to his events calendar, offering artisanal cheeses from Vermont and France.

"At first, no one knew we were here," Harrison says. "The new people in the area assumed we were your typical inner-city liquor store." But he got word about the tastings out to the e-mail lists that connect the new neighbors. People showed up. "This is what we waited all those years for."

Modern Liquors still sports the urban fortress look, but that will improve as the block does. This year, the barren edges of the convention center will finally be replaced by restaurants, including an Old Dominion Brew Pub across from the liquor store.

"The convention center has actually slowed the development of the area by several years because they didn't lease their retail space," Padro says.

But small businesses are popping up all over Shaw, and Ninth Street is becoming the retail strip it once was.

No one's about to accuse Modern Liquors of getting too chichi, but the owners don't disinfect their dollars anymore. And to guard against the danger of getting too fancy, Jeff Harrison has decided to leave the bullet hole just as it is.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company