Lide Owens Jr., after more than 40 years of dreaming about it, is finally running his own grocery.
Owens, a 52-year-old black entrepreneur, is the co-owner of a "mom and pop" grocery in the H street corridor of Northeast Washington. Called the H and O Market, Owens' grocery has been operating for two months at 1240 H St. NE. The idea of owning a store has been with Owens since he was 12 years old and worked behind the counter of hie father's grocery.
"I just haven't wanted to work for anyone else. I wanted to call my own shots. It was something deep down inside me," explained Owens, who said the 'mom and pop' business has given him an opportunity to deal with people -- which he enjoys most.
Owens said he and his partner, 46-year-old Navarro Harrod, who also is black, juse their own money to start the business. They had both been saving for a long time. For nearly 20 years, Owens swept streets for the District government and was the supervisor of the mail department for the Washington Terminal Co. Harrod sold groceries from a sidewalk stand.
"We thought we could start the grocery store on a shoestring budget because I had some experience in the business," Owens said. "I knew what to stock and where I could buy half cases of items. If I had not had the experience, it could have cost us a lot more than $5,000 to stock the store."
The burly businessman said he has to get inspections and permits from several District agencies before he and Harrod could open the grocery. The inspections dealt with health, engineering and plumbing. "The inspections didn't cost that much. I just had to set up an appointment and be there."
The work to get the one-aisle store ready, such as painting and making repairs, were done by Owens and Harrod.
The major costs in operating the store, Owens said, are rent, nearly $250 a month, and electric bills, which average about $150 ("We have several refrigerators that run all the time").
Like many small grocery owners, Owens said, he has customers who complain about high prices. "I just explain that everything is going up and that large chain stores can buy in volume and this often reduces their costs. Hell, in some cases I can go to Safeway and buy these items for about about as much as I get them from the wholesaler."
Owens, who said he was careful not to "buy too little stock or too much," added that he bought basic necessities when the store first opened and expanded the stock after patrons began asking for additional items. "If you don't have what people want, they will go some place else to shop."
On a good day, Owens said, he and Harrod thake in about $150; on a bad day, it is about $100.
The grocery already has become a place for neighborhood people to find an encouraging voice, a smile and, often, advice from the man behind the counter.
Owens said: "I am probably the only man in Washington who can get away with calling people sissys and dummys and not get punched in the face."
During the interview, Owens was waiting on several customers.
He told one man that he "must be crazy" if he was going to support anyone but the Bullets. To a teen-aged girl, who leaned against the counter with a frown on ther face, he advised: "Now you know I'm not going to marry anyone who doesn't smile." When she smiled, he told her she better get a good education and a good paying job so she could support him.
A 'mom and pop' businessman, said Owens, has to be a "friend, brother, father, and have "a strong shoulder to cry on." Along with shopping lists, he noted, patrons often bring their problems.
"I just try to make everybody smile. A lot of people come in here with problems and we just talk."
Owens keeps a television set on in the store, and during ball games there are often heated debates. He said debates on politics or "any other topic people want to argue about" liven up the daily routine.
"I am getting a set of encyclopedias for the store so we can settle some of these arguments."
The area near the store still retains the imprint of the 1968 riots. "Not a thing has been built since '68," Owens said, but he hopes there will be growth along the corridor soon.
But for now, Owens and Harrod, who keep the store open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week, say they must contend with occassional drunks who come into the store, and deal with poor people who linger on the H-street coridor.
By opening the store, Owens joined a small army of black businessmen in the District who have survived riots, recession, high inflation and stiff competition. (Owens' store is only a few blocks away from another 'mom and pop' grocery store as well as a Safeway).
These black businesses -- nearly 5,000 of them representing less 3 percent of all gross receipts in the city, according to recent District figures -- include small liquor stores, clothing outlets, beauty salons and groceries.
Amid the glass-and-steel high rises, the large chain stores and changing neighborhoods, their small businesses have been cornerstones of Washington's past -- since the days when its businessmen slept in rooms above their stores.
A number of black business owners come from a tradition of family-owned businesses. But the numbers of black businessmen are dwindling, according to local bankers, who cite rising costs of loans and the difficulty in getting them.
"Mom and pop" operations also are being challenged by crime and a recent influx of Asian entreprenuers, many of them Korean, who have opened businesses in low-income black neighborhoods.
Owens said that despite Washington's continuing growth, black-owned "mom and pop" businesses will always be around.
"There is always going to be a man around the corner who is going to come up short. He is going to have to ask you to let him have a loaf of bread until he can get some money. He can't go to Safeway and come up 20 cents short. We accommodate, that's how we survive."
Owens' first job in a "mom and pop" grocery was in 1941 when his father had a corner sotre on 7th Street in Northwest Washington. Owens said he sold goods and helped keep the small business running.
For nearly 20 years he put off his dream of owning a grocery while he worked at other jobs, sometimes as long as 16 hours a day, to support his family. He has nine children by two marriages.
It was only after his sons were in their 20s that he got a chance to go into business. He helped three of his sons operate a small grocery at 1006 Florida Ave NW from 1967 until their lease ran out in 1970.
After that, he helped a friend manage a small store along the H street corridor.
Now, 40 years after he sat behind the counter of his father's store, Owners watches his own son, 15-year-old Richard, as he conducts business. Some day, Owens hopes Richard will go into business, too.
But now, "Im just trying to break him in."