D.C. street vendors are taking a stand Crackdown: City contends its roadside retailers have gotten out of control, while merchants respond that system works fine

October 11, 1997|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- On K Street in the capital, a person can buy a $1 half-smoke hot dog, a $15 silver watch (it says Cartier on it you be the judge), a polyester Jesus tie (three for $10), a $20 bottle of NUDE perfume and a Chinese coin said to be 1,000

years old, on sale for $10.

And that's all before setting foot inside a store.

Washington's street vendors have been earning a living for years by plying a range of wares -- from tote bags to toaster ovens -- along such thoroughfares. But now, some city officials say, huckstering on downtown streets is out of control. It is time, they contend, for a crackdown on bazaar behavior.

The capital has one of the more unregulated street-vendor scenes in the country. While Baltimore permits no more than 64 )) street vendors to set up permanent tables, Washington allows more than 1,400 vendors to sell their wares almost anywhere -- and anytime -- they want.

After years of hearing complaints about these merchants -- and their tendency to snatch business from retailers, clog the sidewalks and sell merchandise of, shall we say, dubious origin -- Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. created two task forces last year to figure out ways to control them.

"The system of regulation is chaotic," said Harold Brazil, a City Council member whose committee on consumer affairs will draft reforms this fall. "You have people vending where they shouldn't be, too many people concentrating in one area, some vendors with counterfeit licenses -- you really have too many vendors for the available public space."

City Council members are considering ideas that would not only limit the number of permits but also require vendors to forfeit their familiar spots by competing in a lottery for short-term licenses. Another proposal would require most vendors to congregate only in an open-air market that the city would create.

Such rumors leave vendors rattled. To fight back, hundreds went on strike for a day late last month, forcing the hot dog-loving public to fend for itself. Customers complained. The vendors got press.

What of the unwritten rule of the sidewalk, they asked? That's the code that allows a vendor to keep a hot locale for years -- not because of a permit, but because everyone just knows it's his. It also keeps street merchants united against a common enemy -- the city government.

For the street merchants, many of whom arrive before dawn and use their profits to support their families, the city's interest in more tightly regulating the vending system is frightening.

"I'm doing this for my income -- this is my livelihood," said Lee Glembot, who runs Forever Bonsai, a stand with more than a dozen varieties of tiny ornamental trees (VISA and MasterCard accepted). "Vendors build up clientele, they know everybody on the street and have been there for years. That's why I'm dead-set against some of these proposals."

Glembot wants to turn his stand into a greenhouse, with a cover over the table to protect items like the $120 Japanese maple bonsai from the cold. But he may be out of luck: The City Council is considering forcing all the stands to look the same.

Right now, Glembot has a great deal: For a $1,500 annual fee, he and other vendors can do business along the city's priciest commercial strips. And unlike Baltimore, this city does not bar vendors from selling near a retail store that advertises similar merchandise.

It should not be surprising, then, that some of the fiercest enemies of street vendors are the rent-paying merchants. Four vendors sell ties within two blocks of The Custom Shop, a men's clothing shop in the city since 1948. Inside the oak-paneled Connecticut Avenue store are rows of handmade silk ties, up to $45 each. The $3 numbers are outside.

"These ties here are all the finest quality," confides Don Elshami, the assistant manager. He sniffs at the competition: "The others are cheap ties. Even if it's silk, it's cheap silk."

This isn't an easy time to be a small retailer. Monied chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders are the major retail success stories in downtown D.C. But smaller shops haven't stood a chance in recent years, said Diane Duff, a lobbyist at the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

"We don't have as many retailers in D.C. proper -- that has really dropped off significantly in the last couple of years because of the high rents, the recession, the overall business conditions in Washington," she said.

The city government is concerned not only about unfair competition from street vendors but also about the quality and origins of some of this street-side merchandise. While Rolex and Gucci send their own undercover people to investigate the sales of counterfeit or stolen goods, other businesses cannot afford to send out spies.

And what about shoppers? How can they know where on earth this stuff comes from?

Yuk Tsoi, for example, is offering what he vows are genuine coins from the Shun-Chi Dynasty (1644-1661). But the ancient relic costs only $10 -- maybe less if you get two.

A former Las Vegas casino worker who emigrated from Hong Kong in 1976, Tsoi, 75, says he makes $700 a month from his stand, which he has operated for the past three years. As he shakes his head "no" to the idea of new city regulations, he is obviously eager to get on with business as usual. A woman passes by and peruses a jade Buddha.

"Comes from China," he says. "REAL."

Pub Date: 10/11/97

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