MAXWELL:  An Arab-owned store in my neighborhood

10/3/2001 – Printed in the EDITORIAL Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

 

I will not divulge the name of the business, nor will I state its location because people claiming to be “real Americans” may harm the owners or destroy their property. I mention this business at this time because it is owned by Arabs.

When the business opened in the neighborhood a few years ago, I checked out the quality of its products and the counter-side manner of its employees. I like their merchandise, especially their washed and cut collard greens. I rarely eat breakfast, but, when I do, I buy sausage from this businesses. Their smoked links are the best.

Over the years, I have been treated well at this store. Apparently, most of my black neighbors and many from other parts of St. Petersburg’s south side also like this Arab-owned store.

Besides what I have said already, here is why: The owners and their staff treat their customers with respect. Most of the customers are low-income and hard-working. Many shop in dirty work clothes. They may be sweaty and tired. The last thing they need is ill-treatment when they spend their money.

The store’s employees and owners understand. They talk and joke with customers, laugh with them, ask about their kids, listen to their gripes, discuss Mideast politics. When I say they talk with the customers, I mean genuine conversation filled with intimate details, the day-to-day, mundane stuff that is the sum total of who people really are.

I am not sure, but believe the owners extend selective, modest credit. The store is, in effect, an old-time neighborhood shop. The owners run meat specials to give large families the best values. Clerks, along with owners, routinely carry customers’ orders to their cars.

One of their best services is home delivery. Many home-bound older people have their orders brought to their homes and placed on their kitchen tables.

A real measure of the store’s connection to the community is its hiring policy. The owners train blacks to be butchers and to serve customers properly and courteously. For many African-Americans who otherwise would avoid the store, having blacks in the meat department brings them back time and again.

The black employees are not tokens. Wanting members of the community to have a stake in the business, the owners hire and train from the neighborhood. They also know that black people like to see competent black people serving them.

Yesterday, I asked an employee if they had had any negative reactions from customers since Sept. 11. They have had some disapproving looks from people shopping there for the first time. Longtime customers, however, shop and go about their business as before.

Many white Americans do not know that blacks, unlike many other groups, are tolerant of other cultures. They are especially tolerant of those being attacked simply for being who they are.

“We respect our customers and treat them like human beings,” the worker said.

That respect has created a clientele that has become protective of the owners during this terrorist crisis. I spoke with several customers who live near me, and all of them sing the store’s praises.

“I like these people,” a woman said. “They have been good to my family and me. I was short of cash one time, and the man told me to give it to him next time. We see them as friends.”

A man a few houses from me spoke directly about the harassment of Arabs he has read and heard about.

“The people who run our store are just people,” he said. “They have been good to us around here, and we don’t want anything to happen to them. Everybody around here cares about them. I’ve never seen better store owners, especially in this part of time.

“Most of the other store owners don’t respect us on this side of town. Some Arabs have committed evil, but I don’t have anything against these people here. Hey, they could’ve put their business somewhere else, but they put it here. We needed it.”

I know four other Arab store owners, one in St. Petersburg and two in Tampa. The store in St. Petersburg is also in a mostly black neighborhood. It has not experienced trouble. The two in Tampa, however, are in mostly white areas and have seen a drop off in business. One Tampa owner has received several death threats. His children have been harassed at school, and his wife, who wears religious attire, now feels unsafe outside their home.

“Until the World Trade Center was destroyed, we were Americans,” he said. “Well, now we’re people to be feared. Everything changed so quickly. I think it’s best that we move to another location.”

I told him about the store in my neighborhood.