On a recent Tuesday afternoon, James Oh ringed up bags of chips, lottery tickets, and cans of beer for a line of customers at his store in South LA.
Oh describes his establishment as a community store where people “have a good time.” Shelves are stocked with candy, chips, boxes of cereal and sugar, bottles of mayonnaise, household essentials like toilet paper and air freshener, and an almost endless selection of alcohol.
What was formerly known as Tom Liquor—located on the corner of Florence and Normandie avenues, where the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising erupted—is now called Tom Market.
The name was changed a few days before a hearing at Los Angeles City Hall last month when residents and Community Coalition, a local organization dedicated to improving social and economic conditions in South LA, laid out a case to revoke Tom’s liquor license, citing multiple incidents of customers harassing residents and liquor being sold to already intoxicated customers. The city’s decision is expected to be announced October 21.
“It’s not that we’re alcohol abolitionists or want to shut down businesses,” says Carlos Leon, community organizer at Community Coalition. “It’s an accountability act to demand respect and ask for a full transformation into something that provides healthier outcomes for our community.”
One way to do that, Leon says, is to transform liquor stores into small grocery outlets, similar to Hank’s Mini Market in Hyde Park, just a few minutes west of Tom’s, near Crenshaw Boulevard and Florence Avenue.
Hank’s, originally established as a liquor store 22 years ago, underwent a makeover last year. Kelli Jackson, a South LA resident, took over her father’s business and partnered with the LA Food Policy Council and Sweetgreen to add fresh fruit and vegetables, kombucha, and healthier snack alternatives. Jackson also hosts monthly nutrition workshops and other community events with local organizations.
“I would love to see a market [because] we don’t have a market very close to us at all,” says South LA resident Karina Jacinto, who lives behind Tom’s. “The neighbors around us would be very happy if [it] would turn into a market.” Business would be so good, she predicts, Oh would make “double of what he makes now.”
Jacinto says customers drink and dispose trash, sometimes even needles, in the parking lot. She says she decided to get involved with Community Coalition’s campaign to revoke Tom’s liquor license after an intoxicated man yelled inappropriate things to her mother and young daughter, and hopped into their backyard.
“We don’t want to harm the manager or the owner,” she says. “But if they would stop selling liquor, all these people will go away.”
Oh says his store does serve the community. Residents do their grocery shopping there, and he insists that “it’s not just a liquor store.” While he says he’s aware that there’s an “alcoholic problem” in the general area, he says it’s not his job to move the people who linger outside of his store.
Asked if not having a liquor license would affect his business, Oh says yes, but the bottom line, he adds, is “we don’t violate any [laws] here.”
Tom’s has been in business for more than 25 years. It was one of approximately 200 liquor stores destroyed by looting and fires during the 1992 LA Uprising. Upheaval unfolded at the intersection of Normandie and Florence where Tom’s, which was under different ownership at the time, is located; it was considered “ground zero” of the violence and unrest.
Two months after the dust settled, Community Coalition, a nonprofit organization founded in 1990 by Congresswoman Karen Bass and a group of activists, launched a campaign called “Rebuild South Central Without Liquor Stores.”
Liquor stores were so prolific in the area that Bass told the Los Angeles Times that South LA had 728 liquor stores before the uprising. “We need to figure out how to rebuild this city with quality and turn tragedy into opportunity,” Bass, the coalition’s former director, told the newspaper in 1992.
Community Coalition has a long history of organizing against liquor stores in LA. In 1990, when Bass was a physician assistant at LA’s County General Hospital treating patients from bullet wounds, she began to investigate substance abuse problems in South LA, according to the Prevention Institute, a national nonprofit organization focused on prevention and health equity.
Community Coalition members went door to door to ask residents how the community should address the issue. Many residents, the organization found, wanted fewer liquor stores.
It then identified 24 specific liquor stores that were “hot spots” for crime, including Tom’s. But then all two dozen, including Tom’s, were damaged or destroyed in the uprising, according to the Prevention Institute.
In the aftermath of the unrest, then-mayor Tom Bradley launched the nonprofit Rebuild LA to generate business and spur jobs in the region. Its goal, according to Prevention Institute, was to “fast-track rebuilding.”
Still, only a “few dozen” of the estimated 200 liquor stores that were destroyed ended up reopening, according to KPCC. Tom’s, while at least partially damaged, was one of them. To reopen, Tom’s and others had to meet a number of conditions, including hiring full-time security guards to make sure there weren’t problems on the premises.
Since 1992, as a result of Community Coalition’s campaign, 150 liquor store have closed and 46 have been converted to markets, laundromats, or nonprofits, says Michael Kelley, Community Coalition’s communications manager.
But even today, the number of liquor stores exceeds the number of grocery stores, and access to fresh and healthy food remains a big issue.
There are about 96 liquor stores and bars and 23 grocery stores in the region, according to a research paper conducted in partnership with Community Coalition and that was published in 2018 in the journal Preventive Medicine. (Some grocery store estimates are higher; Community Health Councils pegs the number at 60, as reported by LAist).
Tom’s might have changed its name to “market,” but nearly 30 years later, it’s still operating as a liquor store, says Kelley.
“We want businesses to act responsibly like they do in affluent neighborhoods,” he says.