JAMES MEARS sits behind the counter of the Independent Variety store these days. On this particularly gorgeous May afternoon, Mears sports his black kufi and matching black buba and peers out at you from behind black-framed spectacles as he chats up the customers who stroll in.
He greets them all with a cheery hello and asks about their welfare. A woman who wants a pack of Newport cigarettes agrees that his are the cheapest in the neighborhood. A boy and man come in, and Mears jokes with the lad about always being the one who orders while the older guy pays. After some more banter, the boy asks for a couple of candy items and a small juice.
Mears sits back in his chair, the one that has the personal computer and a dispatch radio on a table behind it. The computer is for the store's inventory. The radio Mears uses to dispatch cabs for his other business, the Independent Taxi Co.
Just a few years ago, this building was the office of the taxi company only. Now there are cold sodas and fruit juices, canned vegetables, bread, boxes of cereal, cookies, doughnuts, candy, popcorn, potato chips and other items in the store. Mears has expanded. Soon there will be a deli next to the variety store. Mears has also started a dry cleaning and alterations business.
Mears handles his variety store transactions from behind a bulletproof, Plexiglas shield. The 1700 block of Bloomingdale Road in West Baltimore still has its dangers. But Mears insists that, in this neck of Rosemont at least, things are safer than they once were.
"Right over there," Mills said, pointing to an alley just off the corner of Bloomingdale Road and Westwood Avenue, "there used to be about 15 addicts hanging out. The dealer would come along and pass out drugs to them from a can."
On this day, the alley was empty. There wasn't a trace of drug activity within blocks. Mears has no illusions that street-level drug dealing has disappeared entirely from the Rosemont community that he's lived in for 52 years, but he's optimistic.
"There are still drugs and dealing," Mears said, "but the dealers are now on the defensive. They're not as brazen."
Just a few years ago, the dealers were quite brazen. They sold their product from the front steps or porches of law-abiding citizens, especially the elderly. They drank booze, shot craps and blocked the ingress and egress of legitimate businesses. Those who protested sometimes found their tires slashed or bricks sailing through their windows.
Mears isn't bashful about who should get the credit for the change. He specifically mentions Baltimore Police Commissioner Ed Norris and the commanders of the Southwestern District, whose officers patrol this stretch of Bloomingdale Road.
"People lie on the police when they charge them with racial profiling," Mears asserted. "Here you got an SOB standing on the corner in 20-degree weather, and folks say he's being profiled. It's the drug users who bring up the profiling charge."
Mears realizes this view puts him at odds with many of those who publicly opposed Norris' reconfirmation at a City Council hearing two weeks ago. But Mears says he has met with Southwestern District commander Maj. Russell Shea and likes what he's doing.
Shea explained briefly what he has his officers doing.
"We do a lot of drug reversals," Shea said. "We have officers act as dealers and tow the cars and take the money of drug users. We have a lot more drug enforcement efforts."
Shea also measures his officers' performances. He counts the number of cases cleared or the number of car stops and field interviews conducted. The latter practice - stopping cars and citizens - has caused some dispute, but Shea clarified it.
"We have a lot of car thefts here," Shea said. "The way to do away with stolen cars is to stop cars. The way to stop drug dealing is to do field interviews."
The drug dealing in Rosemont hasn't stopped, but it's eased up enough in the 1700 block of Bloomingdale Road for Mears to feel his store is in a much better place to live.
"Wouldn't you say it's safer around here?" Mears asked an elderly woman who entered the store.
"Yes," she said, "a lot better than it was."