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The couple took out a mortgage to buy the building in 1977, Moore says. A year later they were granted a $25,000 county-backed business loan, the only public assistance they've ever had, Lawrence says. He paid back the county a year later, after receiving financing from the People's National Bank of Commerce. The store's first cash register was a cigar box. The Moores made about $75 the first day, but the business grew, and soon they were taking in more than $200 per day.
"Now a good day is anything over $100," he notes. "One hundred dollars or less is average. Leaning towards less."
Then Lessie says with a sigh: "It's strange how things die down."
"First five years was candy compared to now," Moore says, reflecting on the store's bearish history.
Of course there were a few bumps in the bottom line, even back then. During the May 1980 riots that started after a Tampa jury acquitted police officers charged with the beating death of insurance salesman Arthur McDuffie, Moore spent the night in his van across the street from his store holding his 9-millimeter pistol to ward off looters. He never fired the weapon. The only one who bothered him during the turmoil, he says, was a helmeted policeman. "All my family was inside [the store] and I'm standing on the outside. And one of the riot police passed by me and hit me with his blackjack and told me to get inside. He hit his blackjack right on my funny bone." Lawrence pauses. "It wasn't funny though," he says with a chuckle that moves his shoulders up and down.
Looters also spared the Moores' store during other racially charged mayhem in the Eighties, including the 1982 riot that followed a Hispanic police officer's shooting of a twenty-year-old black man named Nevel Johnson. The grocery also escaped the chaos that broke out after officer William Lozano shot and killed Allan Blanchard during a chase in Overtown in January 1989. (A jury convicted Lozano of manslaughter in December 1989.)
Riots, crime, and blight are harmful to a retail operation, but the disappearance of customers can be fatal. During the Eighties and early Nineties, many of the Moores' regular clients -- nearby apartment dwellers -- moved from the area. "All the apartments around here was full when I first came around," Lawrence Moore says.
Indeed, city and county planners had visions of a lot of new housing for Overtown in the Eighties. But their goals remained elusive. A 1993 Miami Herald study found that administrators had projected 4000 new apartments would be built over the decade, but only 893 were finished. The officials had also forecast a million square feet of new shops and offices would go up in the Eighties, but only about 2000 were completed.
Overtown never became a priority for economic development. Braynon points out that blacks could never gain a majority on the five-member Miami city commission. "With one [black] representative, we never had the political muscle to buck the system," Braynon concludes.
In the Nineties some stiff competition pinched the Moores again. Several Middle Eastern merchants opened up markets that offered comparatively low prices and stayed open 24 hours per day, seven days per week. "See, what happened is the Arabs came in and started selling beers two for a dollar," Lawrence says. "You pay eleven dollars and change for a case a beer. If you sell it for 50 cents [per can] you only get twelve dollars back. So what ya' makin?" The answer: less than a dollar per case.
In addition to the new competition, the business environment on Fourteenth Street was grisly. Two years ago, Moore recalls, a driver dropped off a load of Budweiser beer at the grocery, used the telephone, then drove a half-block to make another delivery. A group of men hijacked the truck near an intersection in the shadows of the I-395 overpass. "He just pulled over on the corner and they got him," says Moore. The driver was not hurt, but he hasn't returned. Moore thinks the company assigned him to a different route.
Last April a man fleeing police shot himself in the head in the main entrance of Moore's Grocery. Law officers had chased 35-year-old construction worker Larry Miller because he was suspected of burglarizing a house in the Roads section of Miami. Miller pulled out a gun and fired several times, missing the cops, then turned the pistol on himself. "He was a friend of mine," Moore remarks.
Despite the fear and loathing on Overtown's streets, most days and nights are quiet at Moore's Grocery. The store has never been robbed, and most of the regular customers are charming, if a bit intoxicated.
It is another Friday evening when a man enters the dimly lit store and asks, "Cerveza fría?"
Lessie challenges him: "English?"
He appears not to understand, then admits he speaks English and starts to barter. "You got two for a dollar?"
"Nah," says Lessie.
The man grabs two cans from one of the drums and walks over to the register. "How much here?" "Sixty-five cent each," Lawrence says.
"So that's ..."
"A dollar thirty," Lawrence finishes.