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Owner of burned-out liquor store unsure about reopening

John Chae, burned-out in riot, unsure about reopening his liquor store

More than 400 people have donated more than $32,000 to a "rebuild fund" for John Chae, the West Baltimore liquor store owner who was beaten and burned out of business during the April 27 rioting. But while grateful for the support, Chae is not sure he will rebuild his store — and he's well aware that some people will be pleased to hear that.

Baltimore has a lot of liquor stores — twice as many establishments licensed to sell alcohol as it should have, based on its current population, health officials say. In recent years, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and city officials raised a robust challenge to the number of liquor stores in low-income neighborhoods, pointing to research that, among other things, associates the high density of liquor outlets with high rates of violent crime.

Some liquor stores that sell package goods are open from 6 a.m. until 2 a.m. and are located in residential neighborhoods, not far from schools and churches. A lot of them are neighborhood saloons that morphed over the years into liquor stores with limited or no bar service. They are among some of the dreariest-looking businesses in the city.

One of the Bloomberg researchers, Debra Furr-Holden, is director of the Drug Investigations, Violence, and Environmental Studies Laboratory. She has collected data on 667 stores, including Chae's Fireside North lounge and store at Smallwood Street and North Avenue. With the help of Hopkins graduate students, undergraduates and even some high school students, Furr-Holden has gathered information on each store's daily operations and compliance with its city-issued license. The students conducted hundreds of on-site visits last year and plan more this summer.

Furr-Holden is among those pushing the Baltimore City Council to lower the density of liquor stores as part of the first major overhaul of the city's zoning code in more than 40 years. The Health Department says Baltimoreans list liquor outlet density among their top 10 neighborhood concerns. Furr-Holden says support for zoning changes that could eliminate liquor stores in residential neighborhoods tends to run stronger in West Baltimore than on the east side of the city. "The west-side people want them gone," she says.

John Chae is well aware of the effort to put some liquor stores out of business. And because of his uncertainty about the future, the rioters of April 27 might have achieved what health officials so far have not.

According to Chae, several young men broke into his store and looted it during the riots. They attacked him with bottles from his inventory and robbed him of his wallet and cellphone. One of the attackers hit Chae in the head with a brick. By the time he regained consciousness, the interior of the Fireside North was ablaze.

After my first column on Chae appeared on May 3, several sympathetic readers wanted to know more:

Did he have insurance? Answer: Yes, but only enough to cover about 25 percent of his losses. "Most, if not all, will be going to the creditors," he said. "After that, I will still be in debt … with family loans. It's going to be a sticky mess trying to amortize this for another several years or more. Once I finished off my loan in several years, I was going to give more, in terms of money and time, to the community to help. But everything collapsed."

Would he try to rebuild? Answer: Not sure.

Is he eligible for loans from the Small Business Administration? Answer: Chae is eligible for SBA help, so long as his primary sales are not from lottery or other legalized gambling. In addition, the Maryland Department of Housing & Community Development last week waived a prohibition against emergency loans for liquor stores, so Chae's and others damaged in the riot are eligible for help from the state, too.

Is he done with Baltimore?

"I don't know."

Chae is 46 and, like many inner-city retailers, Korean-American. He and his wife, EunSook, have a baby boy, Logan, who was born prematurely last year. Chae has been recovering from facial injuries and the trauma of the April 27 attack.

The first time I spoke with him, he mentioned nieces and nephews and the need to be a role model for them. "They need to see me live as a stand-up citizen, they need to see their Uncle John working hard," he said, his tone suggesting shame at having been knocked out of business.

I told him there was no shame in being the victim of such a wanton attack. But we also spoke about the effort to reduce the number of liquor stores in the city. There are people who will not mourn the loss of Fireside North, and he knows that.

Maybe, with some encouragement and advice from the owners of other businesses, Chae could sell something else — groceries, for instance, as his father did years ago on Druid Hill Avenue after he first came to America.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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