In recent years, many small businesses in the District have been acquired by immigrants from Korea, Vietnam and other Asian countries. In this first-person story, Washington Post reporter Edward D. Sargent, a native of Washington, describes what happened when his father sold his shop to a Korean family.
For five years, my father, Ernest E. Sargent, owned and operated the Southeast Chesapeake Cleaners, Inc. at the corner jof 6th and Chesapeake streets SE in Washington Highlands, a community best known for its low-income black population and the "mean streets" of Condon Terrace, one of several public housing developments where drugs and crime are rampant.
A certified public accountant who lived in Northeast, my father was new to Southeast Washington when he bought the 20-year-old cleaners from a Jewish owner during an era when white businessmen were selling to blacks. After a few months in the store, my father, an amiable, ambitious, often effusive man became a part of the community. He liked to joke that he was still known for his CPA: his Cleaning, Pressing and Alterations, that is.
"My greatest joy was providing a worthwhile service and being able to communicate well with all my customers -- from those on public assistance to homeowners," he said. "I told them, 'If I was on Connecticut Avenue, I couldn't provide a better service.' They trusted me. They considered me an honest, hard working, community-oriented black businessman."
When he took over the shop, he retained the seven full-time and part-time employes, several of whom lived nearby. He added to his staff, on either a part-time, full-time or intermittent basis his wife Amanda; daughter Cynthia; three sons Ivan, Steve and me; his sister Eva White; brother-in-law Roy White; niece Terri; and a few friends.
The store became his second home. He brought in penny candy and other merchandise and the corner cleaners became a genuine "Mom and Pop" shop, frequented by dozens of neighborhood children and adults. Regular customers affectionately called him "Sarge."
Now the shop has a Korean-born "Mom and Pop."
Two months ago, Sarge sold the business to Okhwan Lim, 60, and his family. Sarge, who also worked as chief financial advisor for the D.C. public schools, retired from that job in 1979 after having suffered an acute heart attack a year earlier. Then, after two years of working full time in the store, he decided to reduce his workload.
Sarge, who is 48, would have handed the business to his sons, who were willing to continue operating it, but said he would have felt an obligation to help out and that would have perpetuated the stress.
He offered the business to employes and close friends, but they either could not afford the down payment of $27,000 on the $100,000 asking price or were not sure they wanted the responsibilities of ownership.
Finally, business broker Edward Im, a native of Korea who works for the firm of Ben Eisenman, Inc., contacted Sarge and negotiated the sale of the cleaners to Lim for $100,000.
The sale was part of a continuing trend. A spokesman for the D.C. Korean Businessmen's Association said that Koreans own approximately 300 small businesses in the city, most of them in black communities.
For the new owners of the Chesapeake Cleaners, the negative vibes began before they could ring up their first sale. On the day the Lims dropped by to look the place over, a longtime customer and friend of my father had come in to pick up his clothes and to chat.
Lim, his wife Seon, his son Jong and their broker walked into the ship and Sarge opened the small door next to the counter, letting the group into the back of the shop.
"What? You're selling to them, Sarge? This will be the last time you'll see me in here," said the customer. "I can't believe you would sell to them."
The friend later apologized to Sarge for his reaction but not for his resentment, and explained that he was dismayed and shocked that Sarge didn't sell th business to a black.
At 3:15 p.m., the Chesapeake Cleaners and variety store is only half a crowded as it used to be. The soulful rhythm and blues on WOOK-FM that used to have people nodding their heads and snapping their fingers is gone. Instead, country-pop music plays softly, almost unnoticed by the few youths buying candy and potato chips.
The mood seems uneasy and communication with the store owner seems stifled.
In the past, neighborhood children would stampede out of Hendley Elementary School, rush into the shop and crowd in front of the glass candy counter, keeping up a constant, playground-like chatter: "Give me a $100,000 Bar;" "I want a Peppermint Patty;" I want some Twinkies;" "Do I have enough (money) for 25 bubble gums?;" "Give me a Chick-O-Stick."
"The children were black and the employes were black. Everybody spoke the same language: "What's up, Brother" and "How're you doing, Baby" were the constant refrains as people stopped by to say hello, even if they had no cleaning to bring in. Handshaking, laughing, touching set the mood. Sarage's slogan, "Protect the Children. They are Our Future," was emblazoned on the price list above the front counter.
It's different now. People stop by for business only. There's not much chatter, not much affection. Tempers rise when customers are asked to repeat what they've just said. Children point to what they want and give directions: "Give me one of those. No not that, those;" "I want two of them. Uh-uh, not them. Them over there . . . yeah, them." "I didn't say I wanted no Freeze Pop, I said I wanted Sweet Tarts!"
Last Saturday, I interviewed my father and the Lim family, who remain friendly, at the rear of the clearners near the dry cleaning equipment. The Lims' son Jong, a graduate of George Mason University, translated for his mother, a warm and affectionate woman, and his father, a rather stoic man. The elder Lims speak very little English. The family now lives in Alexandria.
The Lims left Taegu, South Korea, in 1972, they said, because they had heard that the United States was "full of opportunity" and wanted a better life for their children. Besides Jong, the Lims have four other children. Two daughters are adults and are still in Korea. One son and another daughter attend Virginia Commonwealth University.
"We paid airplane fare and moving expenses -- all that was tax deductible," said Lim, who said that he owned a winery in South Korea that employed about 20 people. His wife Seon was a homemaker. She never worked until she came to the United States. Sometimes she gets homesick for her children, grandchildren and other relatives still in South Korea, she said.
The Lims' first stop here was Raleigh, N.C., where Lim had a Korean friend who helped him find a construction job. He said he brought only $2,500 in cash. After a year of scrimping and saving, he said, he was ready to move up the coast and find a business he could buy.
Lem rented a grocery store on 4th Street NW. The family ran the business for three years.
"We sought less work," Lim said. "Grocery business, you know, all day business. Dry cleaning, usually just morning time is busy. Grocery store more dangerous too. People come inside and all over the store. But in this store (the cleaners), we have a block there (the front counter)."
Operating the cleaners has not been as easy as they expected, however. "Grocery is easier because you don't need a special skill to run it. Anybody can do it; that's why most Korean people buy grocery stores," Seon Lim said. "Since we took over this cleaners, things have slowed down. Most people very nice, some people look down on us. We lose customers. We have language problem."
Pointing to Sarge, she said "When you around -- no problem (communicating); if you not here we have problems."
Since they have been open, the Lims have had one daylight robbery in which a man took some clothes and one attempted nighttime burglary. Sarge, too, had his problems; the cleaners was burglarized about three times a year, he said.
The Lims said that most of their problems arise in the form of customer complaints about their work. Since they have difficulty understanding and speaking English, complaints escalate into angry remarks and customers walk out vowing never to return. The Lims said they offer customers the same quality cleaning, pressing and alteration as my father did. But several customers have complained that the quality of service has declined and prices have increased.
Cleaning a man's two-piece suit cost 35 cents more while the cost of cleaning a dress has generally increased, too, according to some customers.
"You need professionals in the back doing the cleaning and pressing," said Sarge, "and you need an experienced seamstress." Three of Sarge's five full-time and part-time employes left soon after the Lims took over. Now Lim works on the cleaning and pressing and his wife works as seamstress.They have begun to expand the amount of merchandise in the store (Sarge sold everything from Pampers to bread) by bringing in two large refrigerators which they will stock with, among other things, ice cream and soda.
"We are first generation here," Lim said. "We must work hard for the next generation to have better life. We work very hard because we have no foundation."
Ben Eisenman, who has helped dozens of Koreans buy businesses, said, "They are used to living a good life in their country and they want it again for themselves and their children. The general public characterizes Orientals as coming off the boats loaded down with gold in their pockets. That is not true. The majority of the Koreans who come here are from the middle class."
The South Korean government allows each family leaving the country to take a maximum of $2,500, he said. A spokesman for the South Korean Embassy said that the South Korean government is considering a proposal to establish a new maximum of $100,000.
Eisenman said, "Blacks feel that it is very difficult for a black to go into a bank and borrow money . . . but that it is easy for a yellow man . . . . iIn my experience, only one yellow man had to borrow from a bank. I wish more blacks would buy businesses." The average down payment on a small business in this area, he said, is $15,000 to $18,000.
The change in ownership at Chesapeake Cleaners has been a frequent subject of conversation in the neighborhood during the past two months. Although the Lims are accepted by some, other residents have expressed resentment.
Sharon Williams, who has lived inthe community for 14 years, said, "I think it's a disgrace for another nationality to come into a whole black community and make the money. When Sarge had the cleaners, this was the only place I used to take my clothes. He brought the business up -- he made it more than a cleaners. The work was perfect. I feel that he shouldn't have sold it to those Chinese," she said, making a common misidentification. "The prices are too high, they take too long to write up your ticket."
Mary Delaney, who has lived across the street from the cleaners for 22 years, said, "The Koreans may charge higher prices, but they're an asset to the community. They love children and they do good work. They can't understand English, but they'll learn."
Earl Johnson, 29, who is unemployed, said, "I'd rather see Sarge still in the cleaners because, first of all, he's a brother." He said he wasn't sure whether his sentiment was rooted in pride or prejudice. "Second, I could understand him; I can't understand them.Sometimes people need their clothes but they be a quarter short. Sargent would say, 'Okay, bring it to me tomorrow. They say, 'No! No! No!'"
Joe Woods, 26, who grew up in the neighborhood, said he thinks Koreans are successful because, "They know they are a real minority here, more so than blacks. They've got more drive. But they don't seem to have much business sense. They figure that if they can get a business, they can hang in there and make it one way or another. They'll play games with you. If you complain about a wrinkle in your pants, they'll act like they don't understand.But you mention money and they understand perfectly."
Malik Edwards, director of the Malcolm X Cultural Education Center in nearby Anacostia, said he is aware of the Korean transformation of corner shore businesses -- the potential sends of black economic development.
"Blacks resent Koreans (because) first of all they're foreigners. They look different; they talk funny and blacks just don't understand them. They're seen as invaders coming into the community, taking over businesses and jobs that they think should be owned by us. And blacks don't know how easy it is to own a business. "I don't blame the Koreans," Edwards added. "They're taking advantage of a good opportunity. We can't blame them. We should find out they got to be able to do this."