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NEIGHBORHOOD MAINSTAYS:

Market, car dealer anchor neighborhoods

(Published January 17, 2000)

One of an occasional series

By EMORY JULIAN MILLS

Staff Writer

What is the secret of longevity? Why do some neighborhood establishments survive for decades while others donít?

Liffís Market, at 600 Alabama Avenue SE in Congress Heights, is one of the longtime survivors in a city that sees many businesses come and go so quickly that itís often hard to remember what businesses were formerly housed in a given location.

But Liffís has been a fixture in Congress Heights for 88 years, since it was opened in 1911 after William and Ella Liff emigrated from Lithuania. Sam Liff, the third-generation owner, runs the store along with his wife, Hazel, his son-in-law, Tony Wolfe, and his stepsons, David and Mark Berkheimer.

Liff, 59, said the secret to his storeís longevity as a neighborhood business lies in offering people the goods they want to buy. He said being able to provide what people want was a cardinal value his father imparted to him.

"People go into a small store, and if they canít find what they want, they leave," Liff said. "A small store canít offer the variety that a big store can."

He noted that the store sells staple items found in a corner convenience store -- beer, cigarettes, bread, milk and eggs. But Liffís also stocks grocery items such as soup and meat that are hard to come by in Ward 8 since the area lost its only supermarket more than a year ago when the Safeway closed.

The store "has changed a great deal" over the years, Liff said.

"Itís gone from a full-time grocery store to a convenience store," he said.

And some of his old regular customers have left the now economically depressed neighborhood once it became financially feasible for them to do so.

Having a good relationship with his customers, he said, is another secret to the storeís longevity.

"We try to be nice to people," said Liff, who is also a Congress Heights resident. "Some customers are friends. Some are just customers."

The racial or cultural conflicts that have sometimes arisen between Asian-owned businesses and their customers in some of the Districtís solidly African-American neighborhoods donít seem to have touched Liffís Market Ė a white-owned market that thrives only blocks away from the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X avenues.

"Iím not intruding on someoneís neighborhood," Liff said. "This is my neighborhood. People have problems with personalities. It doesnít matter what the color is."

Linda Williams, 47, a Congress Heights resident who has been one of Liffís customers for 20 years, described the shopkeepers as friendly and said she uses the store every day.

"Itís convenient," said Williams, who praised the store for having fresh meat. Now that Safeway has moved out of the area, she noted that Liffís is the closest thing neighborhood residents have to a supermarket.

***

Curtis Chevrolet has existed since 1966, when Curtis Dworken bought Hicks Chevrolet and renamed it. Hicks Chevrolet opened for business in the 5900 block of Georgia Avenue in Brightwood in 1949.

Fifty years ago, the District had 38 franchised new car dealerships, said Dudley Dworken, who has been company president since his father, Curtis, retired in 1989. Today, Curtis Chevrolet is the only new car dealership in the District that hasnít moved a large part of its business to the suburbs.

Dworken noted that one of the main reasons why his dealership has stayed in business is its ability to meet its customersí needs.

"Our aim is to satisfy people 100 percent of the time," he said.

Eighty-five percent of Curtis Chevroletís business is done with D.C. residents who live within a two-and-a-half mile radius of the dealership, said Dworken, who added that many of the companyís best customers are repeat customers who have bought Chevrolets there since 1949. The company also conducts business with the Prince Georgeís County Police Department, the Metropolitan Police Department, and the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development.

Dworken said that General Motors asked the company several times to move to the suburbs, but Dworken said if Curtis Chevrolet moved, it would "leave a dent in the area."

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator