Time for Philadelphia’s stop-and-gos to stop — and go

Shots of liquor for sale at a

Plastic glass shields shots of liquor for sale at a stop-and-go in the Sharswood section of North Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

I’m angry that the stop-and-go issue in Philadelphia has been mischaracterized as a debate about bulletproof glass. In reality, it’s about small convenience stores or delis that have routinely been allowed to skirt the law in black and brown communities.

The combination of state liquor and restaurant licenses these stores operate under require that they provide seating for 30 people and onsite bathroom facilities. The stores often have neither, and the undermanned state liquor control board, which oversees these facilities under state law, has rarely shut them down.

But the problem with stop-and-go businesses is more than a legal issue. It’s an ethical issue. The owners of these stores operate with predatory efficiency, providing everything necessary for their customers’ demise while at the same time refusing to give anything back. As a lifelong Philadelphian who has lived in the neighborhoods where these nuisance businesses have thrived, I need our city’s leaders to know this: It’s time for the stop-and-go to stop and go.

Eighth District Councilwoman Cindy Bass agrees. It’s why she introduced bill 170963 to regulate stop-and-go businesses at the city level.

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“What we have is businesses that sell beer, which is supposed to be consumed off site, but it’s consumed on site,” Bass told me in an interview. “You have shots of alcohol being consumed on site. You have cold medicines that are used to be converted to illegal drugs, and you have crack pipes being sold. Then you have candy for children, which, in my opinion, is grooming the next generation of customers for this type of business.

“Anything you need to get high you can get at a stop-and-go. If they were selling hypodermic needles, there’d be a call to shut them down, but because they’re selling crack pipes and alcohol, there’s not the same sense of urgency.”

Bass is right. Unfortunately, that message has been lost in the uproar over bulletproof glass. The store owners have argued that the bill — which requires stores that claim to be restaurants to operate as such — would bring bloodshed by requiring stop-and-go stores to remove bulletproof glass.

In truth, the bill does not require the immediate removal of the bulletproof glass. Rather, it mandates that the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections decide on the bulletproof glass in 2021. L&I could very well decide that the bulletproof glass can stay in the stores. But, by pretending this is a safety issue rather than a legal issue, stop-and-go owners can continue to skirt the law without being forced to change their predatory business model.

Disdain for customers

That makes me angrier than anything else. Because the people who are siding with stop-and-go owners on this issue have never lived in the neighborhoods they claim to know so much about. If they had, they would know, as I do, that the majority of people in our neighborhoods go to work every day, struggle to pay their bills, and strive to live in peace with their neighbors. They would know that the vast majority of businesses in poor black and brown neighborhoods — including numerous Asian-owned businesses — operate safely without plexiglass.

But the narrative that stop-and-go owners have spun is one that shows a disdain for the customers they claim to care so much about. That’s the message I got when I read in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News that Asian American Licensed Beverage Association chairman Adam Xu told 200 stop-and-go owners not to use guns, but in the next breath said, “If this bill passes, nobody should remove their bulletproof glass … we will tell the entire city government and all citizens of Philadelphia: ‘We love the community like everybody else. We do not want gun violence.’ ”

In my view, such statements are not made out of love. They’re made out of fear. And if stop-and-go owners are afraid of the black and brown people in my community, they shouldn’t claim to love us. They should leave.

Because here is the truth: Love doesn’t sell crack pipes to addicts, or peddle illegal loose cigarettes in a community that desperately needs tax revenue from legal tobacco. Love doesn’t sell shots of liquor to alcoholics from one hand, and bags of potato chips to children from another. Love doesn’t threaten to ignore the law in order to keep selling poison to a community that is already distressed. Love doesn’t assume that every customer who walks through the door is a criminal.

Love, most of all, doesn’t kill a community one serving at a time.

If stop-and-go stores can’t operate within the law, they shouldn’t be allowed to operate at all. Instead they should simply stop and go.

Listen to Solomon Jones from 10 a.m. to noon weekdays on Praise 107.9 FM

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