Behind the counter of Musa Ibrahim’s Central Avenue liquor store, there’s a loaded 38 mm gun in a brown paper bag.
In 18 years at this location, he has not been robbed, and he’s never used the gun.
He doesn’t plan to.
For one thing, in the case of an armed robbery, there wouldn’t be time to pull a gun out of a paper bag, he said. Ibrahim would probably give the robber whatever they wanted, like he did when a different store he owned was robbed more than 20 years ago.
“We have a weapon here just in case,” he said. “I wouldn’t use it.”
Jose Argueta takes a similar approach – there is a machete behind the counter of his father’s South L.A. liquor store, but Argueta's brother says it hasn't been used.
Sitting behind the counter at his dad’s liquor store at Central and 55th, Argueta said he's seen it all. But the Arguetas’ store, like Ibrahim’s, does not have bulletproof glass separating them from their customers.
Instead, the Arguetas have formed cordial relationships with people.
“We’re the local liquor store where you can talk to the clerks,” Argueta said. “We get along with the community. We get along with the gangsters.”
Argueta, 28, said only time they bring a gun into the store is if a gang member they don’t have a good relationship with has come in or threatened them, and they don't feel safe without some means of protection.
This hasn’t happened for about three years, though, since improved policing has lessened the crime in the area, he said.
He’s been robbed at gunpoint, pepper sprayed, and has gotten into fights, he said. He’s seen drive-bys and stabbings right outside his store, but those haven’t happened in the last few years, he said.
Liquor stores: Easy targets
The improvements to the area are a result of the police's targeting of problem areas in recent years, and gangs shifting to other cities as they realized law enforcement's grip was tightening, said LAPD sergeant Todd Bogart.
“Liquor stores in general have a higher incidence of crime both as a victim and also peripherally,” Bogart said. “More crime happens around liquor stores historically than around other businesses that don’t sell alcohol.”
They’re directly targeted because they operate a lot of cash and are generally open late. Indirectly, they contribute to crime because people often buy alcohol from a liquor store and drink it on the premises or nearby in a parking lot or alleyway, which is illegal and can lead to other crimes, Bogart explained.
Argueta said he frequently deals with people coming in and out who are drunk, and sometimes acting belligerently because of it.
“It got to a point where we try to read people,” Argueta said.
If someone comes in, showing attitude, Argueta will often throw the attitude back, or try to talk to someone rationally.
Liquor store owners can have legally-registered weapons in their businesses, but police don’t advocate it, Bogart said.
In many cases, though, a weapon like a machete isn’t going to be very effective when it comes to self-defense, other than to scare off someone who comes in unarmed, Bogart said.
If a robber comes in with a gun, a machete isn’t much of a threat.
“If I bring a machete to rob a place, and it’s machete on machete, [then] maybe,” Bogart said.
Even a cordial relationship like the one Argueta has with some gang members is not going to help if someone in a gang needs to steal, Bogart said.
“Criminals are opportunistic,” Bogart said. “If they need money and their buddy’s got it, they’re going to rob him for it whether he’s their friend or not.”
Going on the defensive
What the police push for liquor stores to do instead is use bulletproof glass, cameras, good lighting and multiple employees.
Many stores in the area heed the advice of keeping a thick wall of bulletproof glass between them and the customers.
For some owners, the glass makes them feel safe enough not to have a weapon for self-defense. Ilias “Tiger” Sikder, for example, takes most precautions other than weapons.
He’s never been robbed, and in the four years that he’s owned this liquor store he’s tried to ensure the place has a more family-friendly vibe than it did before he owned it – the store is well-lit and has more of an emphasis on a market atmosphere, he said.
Sikder has 20 cameras in and around his Central Avenue liquor store – there’s even one overlooking the street.
“If you have a weapon, you might use it,” he said. “I don’t believe in that.”
If people loiter in the parking lot, he threatens to call or calls police, and they get the hint. Sikder said that South LA has become safer in the past few years though, and is thinking of taking down the glass to make the store appear more family-friendly, as well as to be able to make more money off the liquor behind the counter, he said.
Without the glass, people can better see the selection, Sikder said.
But Bogart says glass sends the message that a store is not a soft target.
“(Criminals) are not going to go out of their way to ambush somebody with protective glass unless they know someone walks out of there with a ton of money every day,” Bogart said.
Others in the area have bulletproof glass, but still don’t feel secure.
“It’s not very safe, but I still have to work,” said Sandra Salinas, an employee at a liquor store at the intersection of Central Avenue and 78th Street.
Salinas said she hasn’t been robbed, but there are sometimes drunk people trying to get in or refusing to leave after hours, and there is often no other employee in the store.
Having at least two people working makes a liquor store less attractive to criminals, Bogart said. Some stores hire security guards in addition to behind-the counter employees to discourage criminals looking for an easy beer run.
Chris Vreeland is a security guard at a Central Avenue liquor store, but he doesn’t have any weapons.
He’s been a security guard at other stores and has been armed, depending on what the owner wants, but he prefers to be unarmed.
“If you’re carrying a weapon, you’re asking for trouble,” Vreeland said.
He’s more there as a visual deterrent than anything else – unarmed people on a beer run, Vreeland says, are less likely to steal from a store if there's a large, intimidating-looking man patrolling the store. If they do try to steal, he said he asks them to leave and never come back to the store.
The second there’s actual danger, though, Vreeland’s first priority is his own safety, which his employers expect. If someone came in armed, the first thing he would do would be to run behind the bulletproof counter and call 911, he said.
“Everybody’s got a fear,” Vreeland said. “You’ve got to protect yourself.”
In those situations, the safest way to deal with it would be to give the person whatever they want and call police after, he added.
Some stores even have emergency buttons throughout the store that employees can press to transmit an alarm to the police.
But despite the alternatives, some people will still keep something physical to protect themselves with, Bogart said.
“The community is resourceful,” Bogart said. “If they’re inclined to have a weapon for protection, they’re going to find something they feel comfortable with.”
All photos in slideshow by Kat Russell.