One day in 2005, when he was 17, Kaled Saleh was working at his father’s grocery store on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland, when a group of young men came in and began tearing liquor bottles off the shelves and smashing them. “It was kind of terrifying. They started breaking stuff,” Saleh recalled. “Asking why are we Muslim and selling liquor. They were obsessing: Why are we selling to the black community? Why are we poisoning their community?”
Saleh, now 29, looks back on the incident without anger. “We actually had people come years later apologizing for what they did,” he recounted from behind the counter at San Pablo Market. The perpetrators were associated with Your Black Muslim Bakery, which shut down in 2007 after allegations of sexual abuse and the murder of a local journalist who had been investigating the business.
The raid was meant to intimidate the Muslim owners of liquor stores into ending alcohol sales. It was unsuccessful. “I feel like we’re not doing anything wrong. This isn’t all we sell; it’s part of what we sell. You can see like 75 percent of the store is not alcohol,” Saleh said.
Abdul Saleh, Kaled’s father and the owner of the market, echoed his son’s sentiments but was hesitant to reopen old wounds. “The next day we opened,” he said of the raid. “I’ve got to make a living. It’s legal in this country.”
The elder Saleh emigrated from Yemen over 30 years ago, joining a community of immigrants from the Middle East who gravitated towards running corner stores because it falls within their skill set and allows them to support their families.
Miriam Zouzounis, a board member of the San Francisco-based Arab American Grocers Association, which includes a number of Yemeni-owned corner stores, believes that opposition to liquor sales is no longer an issue between Arab and black communities in Oakland. “A lot of corner stores have really great relationships with their neighborhoods,” said Zouzounis. “I would say for the majority of stores that’s the case.”
However, some Muslim grocery store owners in the Bay Area have made a choice not to sell alcohol for religious reasons. Andre Hussein, owner of Ashby Super Market, on Martin Luther King Way and Ashby Avenue in Berkeley, says he does not sell liquor because it is against his religion. “For myself, for me and my family, it’s better not to sell alcohol,” he said. “I can see the way people [act] when they drink. I feel so sad about that.”
Hussein’s grocery store was converted from a liquor store when his uncle bought it 12 years ago, but says he fields daily questions from customers who wonder why he doesn’t sell booze. “Most people, they know we don’t sell alcohol,” Hussein said. “Because it was a liquor store before, and they come and we don’t have liquor any more, and they get mad because we don’t sell alcohol anymore.”
A 2008 study by the Alameda County Public Health Department found that the ratio of grocery stores to people living in West Oakland “has drastically declined over time.” In 1950, there were 140 food stores for every 1,000 residents, while there were only 23 in 2000. The report also found that the number of local liquor stores is “highly correlated with neighborhood poverty levels.” Areas in Alameda County with the highest poverty level had nearly twice as many liquor stores per person than wealthier areas.
Hussein has found that choosing not to sell alcohol has created additional challenges for his store. “It’s a good business, but you know, when you have alcohol all the time, you make more money,” he said.
Owning corner stores has long been the domain of immigrants, said Ahmed Saeed, a board member of the American Association of Yemeni Students and Professionals. “Whether it’s farm labor or owning a corner bodega, you have to understand that this is a space that has traditionally been an immigrant role,” he said. “I think in 10, 20 years it’s going to be somebody different. It’s going to be a different influx of immigrants taking that role.”
Saeed believes that immigrants often take these roles due to limited language skills as well as their desire to make a living. “The bottom line is, it’s not just a Yemeni thing. It’s an immigrant situation that we fall into, and that’s understandable,” said Saeed.
Ultimately, Abdul Saleh justifies selling liquor because it helps support his family. Kaled Saleh mentions that the store also helps their relatives in Yemen, which is in the midst of a brutal civil war. “We’ve got family to feed, bills to pay,” he said. “I’m talking about here and back home.”