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Taking a stand

July 12, 1997

Local grocer refuses to sell tobacco and alcohol; sales have dropped dramatically

By DAVID DISHNEAU

Associated Press Writer

Grocer Lenzlea Mosby Jr. wanted to do the right thing.

He knew the beer and cigarettes he was selling the residents of his mostly poor, black neighborhood were no good for them.

Three months after he stopped stocking the products, it is Mosby's business that's no longer healthy.

Like others who have joined the campaign against marketing alcohol and tobacco in poor neighborhoods, Mosby is learning that good intentions don't pay the bills.

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``Accolades are fine but what I need are more sales,'' the soft-spoken grocer said, sitting behind his faded blue-green counter on a painfully slow July afternoon. Of five people who entered in an hour, three bought a soda or hot dog; the others left shaking their heads at Mosby's lectures on the evils of smoking and drinking.

Beer, wine and cigarettes - especially cigarettes - were staples for years at Mosby's Grocery Mart, a brown brick corner store a few blocks from downtown Hagerstown.

Mosby, 63, priced his smokes lower than other merchants in this blue-collar town of 38,000 and earned extra cash from distributors for displaying their brands on his counter.

He said people came from all over the city to buy cigarettes at his store on Jonathan Street in the heart of Hagerstown's 2,300-member black community.

Now the customers are few and the shelves are two-thirds empty. Fresh meat is no longer available and the old beer cooler is sparsely stocked with milk and other perishables.

Alcohol and tobacco accounted for half his sales when Mosby decided in March to stop selling sin. He was recuperating from a knife attack and his doctors told him a man with smoke-corroded lungs would never have survived his three surgeries.

``When I came back to the store, I felt guilty when I sold a pack of cigarettes,'' he said. ``I didn't want to be the cause of any more young people starting to smoke.''

Mosby said he and his wife, Carrie, had no plan for replacing the lost revenue. They mused about adding a deli counter but their main concern was getting rid of the objectionable products, along with the pool tables and video games that had drawn drug dealers into the store.

``I didn't want to wait until I had everything set up because if I did, I might not do it,'' Mosby said.

He said he expected to lose business, but not to this extent.

Sales are down 75 percent. Formerly loyal customers now buy their groceries where they can get smokes and beer.

Worse yet are the insults, an unexpected backlash of Mosby's resolution.

``I've gotten cursed out by some people, calling me idiot, stupid. One man said `You should be committed,''' Mosby said.

Even his son, Lenzlea Mosby 3rd, disagrees with the decision.

``I think it's foolish,'' he said. ``It was his largest selling product. Unless he plans to go out of business, a businessman needs to make money.''

Area churches have donated several thousand dollars to help Mosby meet expenses, but he said he has borrowed from his life insurance to make his $2,000 monthly mortgage payments. He hopes a state crime victims compensation fund will help cover his more than $30,000 in medical bills.

The Rev. Philip Hundley, president of the Washington County Ministerial Association, supports Mosby's continuing crusade. He said the store's financial problems reflect Mosby's inability to buy products in bulk at low prices, and the reluctance of white people to shop at his store.

``He needs outside help from other parts of the community but if you don't get the merchandise, you're not going to get the customers, let's face it,'' Hundley said.

The Rev. Michael Pfleger, a Roman Catholic priest in Chicago who has led campaigns against tobacco and alcohol sales in poor black neighborhoods, said business typically falls off at stores that stop carrying those products. Recovery requires hard work by proprietors and their supporters, he said.

``You've either got to start brand new or you've got to do a hard public relations campaign in your community,'' Pfleger said. ``You almost have to say `We're opening a brand new store, alcohol- and tobacco-free.'''

Mosby is seeking advice from other business people about new directions for his store but he wouldn't discuss the possibilities. He won't resume selling booze and cigarettes, though.

``I'm not going to waver in that, no matter what happens,'' he said. ``I've taken that stand and that's where I'm going to be steadfast.''

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