Making it convenient

October 19, 1995|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

You can't buy a quart of milk on Clay Street in Annapolis. In fact, you have to go at least a neighborhood away to get any of life's necessities -- a loaf of bread, a box of detergent, a roll of toilet paper.

That's too far for Loretta "Robbie" Allen, who hopes to create the first convenience store in this neighborhood in nearly a decade with the help of a new state loan program.

"A convenience store. That's pretty simple, isn't it? But we don't have it here," said Ms. Allen, who is trying to add the shop to Nick and TJ's Place, a bar and liquor store at 38 Clay St. where she has worked for a year.

The state is trying to encourage such mom-and-pop shops in Maryland's low-income communities with a $7 million loan program started this month. Known as the Neighborhood Business Development Program, it allows people such as Ms. Allen to borrow up to $500,000 to build and expand small businesses in struggling residential areas.

Demand is high for the state loans, but Ms. Allen hopes she stands a shot at securing $40,000 to buy the business. Otherwise, it may close, like many of the other businesses that once lined Clay Street.

Decades ago, the street was a thriving center of black culture, where generations of families lived and stars such as Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway per-formed.

But the neighborhood was transformed in the 1970s when bulldozers and city planners razed entire blocks in the name of urban renewal. Now the community's 350 homes are isolated from the city and troubled by crime and unemployment. The Clay Street neighborhood is the only Annapolis community eligible for the loans.

Frank Scott, 65, who bought Nick and TJ's 10 years ago, is ready to leave.

"This is a wicked neighborhood. And I'm tired," he said. "I just want out."

Drug dealers linger a few feet from Nick and TJ's brick storefront. To keep them from selling their wares in his rest rooms, Mr. Scott buzzes patrons into the locked men's and women's rooms from a button behind the bar. He monitors the cash registers from his office via security cameras.

One owner slain

The city's violence caught up with one owner of the store, Milton Haskins. He was murdered shortly after closing one Friday night in 1980, shot to death in his home in a nearby neighborhood as he ate a sandwich.

Every night, Ms. Allen's friends call her and urge her to give up the idea of buying the business. She tries to ignore them.

"It got so bad last night, I barely got any sleep," she said. "I was just tossing and turning. The different people I talk to, they all say, 'Oh that's a lot of responsibility. Are you sure you're ready for it?' Well, I'm not a kid. I know that's a lot of responsibility. It's a lot of responsibility to have kids, too, you know. I know what I'm doing."

The single mother of three children -- she's trying to adopt two more -- hopes one day to pass the business down to her sons. She says the neighborhood is close-knit and has been wrongly characterized as a crime zone.

Meanwhile, residents whose options are limited to driving to supermarkets on the edge of town or walking for blocks to the nearest convenience store, are eager to see Ms. Allen open the store.

Store recalled

"Years and years and years ago we had a corner store -- you could get a little bit of everything. Lunch meat, milk, eggs, everything a store would sell," said Rosalind Collins, who lives a short walk from Nick and TJ's. "Having a little convenience store down here again, that would be ideal."

Residents remember two grocery stores -- Benny's and Jake Bloom's -- fighting for customers as early as the 1930s from storefronts that faced each other at the intersection of Clay and West Washington streets.

"My dad would send me out to buy milk all the time," said Juanita Parrish, 77, who grew up on Clay Street but has moved. "There were so many stores. You could smell tea and grinding coffee from some of them. Just walking down the street you could smell it."

By the 1950s, Nick and TJ's, then known as Service Center Liquors, opened in the neighborhood, the pints of liquor stacked neat rows five bottles deep. Residents packed the place when Haskins, the local barber, opened it in 1961. Soon, the locals started calling the place "Haskin's." After Mr. Haskin's murder, which remains unsolved, the regulars began to disappear. The business changed owners several times in the 1980s.

These days, Nick and TJ's shows signs of neglect. Plywood boards serve as counters, and 13 mismatched stools sit at the bar. The liquor comes from miniature bottles, so bartenders and customers can't steal extra. The only decorations are some beer signs and two murals hanging near the bathrooms -- one of an elephant nursing a drink and another of two men next to a spilled pail of wine.

'Loose Juice' served

But Ms. Allen has visions of reviving the place. To lure customers, she started serving mixed tropical drinks like rum runners and pina coladas -- even a new drink, the "Loose Juice," named for O. J. Simpson. She recently extended the hours.

Eventually, Ms. Allen hopes to rip out the blue linoleum on the bar, put mirrors behind the counter and add new shelves to hold the liquor.

She wants to serve free chili with every beer and start a lunchtime business. She is thinking about calling it Rob and Al's -- two parts of her name.

"I'll stay open until 11:30, 12:30. However late the people want to stay, I'll hang with them," she said. "All I want is to bring this place back to the way it used to be."

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