Robbed merchant shuns 'Wild West' role He won't join fellow liquor store owners in trend toward guns

October 01, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Paul Ray doesn't own a gun.

It's not that he's tougher or less scared than his fellow merchants. He has confronted more gun-toting robbers in his Northeast Baltimore liquor store than any of them -- five in the past two months.

But unlike his colleagues, who wouldn't think of walking from their cars to their shops without a loaded pistol in hand, Ray doesn't want a weapon.

"It gets to be like the Wild West. We're going to get to the point where someone comes in and says, 'I can draw faster than you.' "

But Ray, who has worked at his family's Frankford Gardens Liquors since his Carver High School days, understands the growing feeling that a gun might be the only answer to stopping crime.

Police swarmed over Gardenville and Cedonia on Monday hoping to stop a rash of armed robberies at liquor stores. But half a mile up the road from Ray's store, at a shop they weren't watching, a man with a fake gun burst into a liquor store and demanded money.

The owner, Sung Kim, grabbed his revolver and fatally shot the assailant. His body sprawled in the parking lot was a vivid warning to anyone who dares hold them up, many store owners at the scene said.

"It seems like the only way that something is going to get done is if I go out and plug somebody," said Ray. But that message troubles the 43-year-old.

"Some people will say Kim is a hero," Ray said, as a line of customers swelled at the lottery machine. "Others will say he shouldn't have done it. But in three weeks, everything will be back to where it was before."

Ray and his brother John took over the liquor store in 1991 when their father, Emerson, died of a brain aneurysm. It has been in the family since 1936.

Back then, Frankford Gardens Shopping Center was the neighborhood place to go, attracting customers from apartments that had pools and neat homes with flower gardens. The shopping center had a grocery store and a beauty salon. A department store was across the street. Sinclair Lane ended at Frankford Avenue, and pavement gave way to horse farms and frog ponds.

Now, box apartments line the streets advertising cut-rate deals on efficiencies. Drug dealers hawking crack cocaine prowl the corners. The shopping center, adorned by pillars, is worn and shared by a catering hall, beauty shop and pizza place. Most stores close at dusk.

Ray tries to reclaim the old-time luster. His store has no impersonal Plexiglas separating him from his customers. People looking for a 40-ounce Schaefer beer for $1.85 can enter without being buzzed inside his expansive store.

Behind the counter is a small baseball display, at its centerpiece an old framed photo of the Pittsburgh Crawford Baseball Club, champions of the 1935 Negro League. Taped to Ray's window is a plea from police in the unsolved shooting of Alphonso "Delaware" Smithson, a 22-year-old gunned down on Chapel Street in June. His mother is a loyal customer.

Ray's patrons don't want to see the store close. "This is the only place for most people in the neighborhood to go," said Thomas Sewell, who lives nearby. He knows what Ray is going through. He was recently mugged at Greenmount and North avenues. "It doesn't matter where you are," he said, slowly shaking his head after he played the state lottery.

The first time Frankford Gardens Liquors was robbed was three weeks after it opened in 1936. A man walked in, beat Emerson Ray with brass knuckles and ran out with a handful of money. During the next 46 years, the store was robbed only six times.

From 1982 until August 1997, nothing. But Aug. 12, a man brandishing a handgun rushed inside, jumped the counter, forced Ray to pull his pants down -- presumably to slow him in a chase -- and took money from the cash register.

Police and Ray say the man has repeatedly hit the store -- Aug. 12, Aug. 20, Sept. 2, Sept. 10 and Sept. 26. "We got him on videotape, but it doesn't seem to bother him," Ray said. Once, he chased the assailant, "right to the apartments across the street." But police have made no arrests.

The robberies have taken their toll. Two of Ray's workers, each with more than a decade of experience, quit. Ray expects his insurance to go up -- he hasn't been reimbursed from the first robbery. He has dipped into his earnings to hire off-duty police for extra protection at night.

He keeps a running log of his troubles -- pages in green ledger books filled with dates and times of 911 calls to police. Complaints about loiterers. Drug dealers. Strange people in general.

Every day, Ray lists the daily receipts. Next to the days he gets robbed, he writes a capital "R." He got tired of writing out the word.

Less than an hour after Kim shot the would-be robber who walked into his store Monday -- the second time Kim has killed an assailant in two years -- other area liquor store owners pronounced him a hero, police said.

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