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Hispanic Store Owner Sues City Over Beer Laws

Berclair-area grocery store owner fights church/school provision in city beer ordinance.

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Honduras native and long-time Memphis resident Marco Sabillon fought the beer law. And he won.

Sabillon, who owns a Berclair-area Hispanic grocery store called Guadalupe Tienda Hispana at 658 Stratford, filed a lawsuit against the city back in November, alleging that the ordinance that prevents beer sales within a 250-foot radius of a church or school is discriminatory.

And by mid-December, the city had granted Sabillon a permit. He's now being hailed as a hero in the local Hispanic community, according to Garland Reed, founder of the Mid-South Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Sabillon, who purchased the store two years ago, had been operating it without beer sales, but he said business was slow because he couldn't sell beer, due to his proximity to Grimes Memorial United Methodist Church.

"In the Hispanic community, when people go grocery shopping, they don't want to go to five different stores. They want to do their shopping in one place, and they drink beer. They want to buy their beer where they buy their tortillas," Reed said. "But he didn't sell beer, so they stopped shopping there."

After Sabillon opened his store, he learned that the previous business owner at that location had been turned down by the Memphis Alcohol Commission for a permit to sell beer because the store was too close to a church.

But when Sabillon realized the Walgreens at Summer and Perkins, just a block from his store, was selling beer, he said he felt that the city was discriminating against Hispanic business owners.

"One day, I went into Walgreens to make a payment, and I discovered that they had beer. Walgreens is next to the church, and I'm further from the church," Sabillon said through an interpreter.

Turns out there is a provision in the city ordinance that excludes businesses located along interstates and state highways from the church/school provision. The Walgreens faces Summer, also known as Highway 70. But with so many small mom-and-pop businesses located on side streets in Berclair and so many churches in the neighborhood, Sabillon believes the ordinance unfairly impacts the Hispanic community.

Sabillon contacted attorney Drayton Berkley and filed a lawsuit against the city, and then Sabillon applied for a permit.

"Once we got down to the [permit] hearing, and the city's lawyer found out there was a lawsuit pending, they found a way to grant him a permit," Berkley said. The lawsuit was subsequently dropped, but Sabillon says he believes the church/school provision should be changed.

"I know other Hispanic people who want to open a business [that sells beer], and they're near a church. Unfortunately, Memphis has a lot of churches," Sabillon said.

City permits administrator Aubrey Howard did not return calls for comment.

Reed said he's working with another Hispanic business owner who is trying to open a restaurant that would sell beer, and she's running into the same issue.

"I'm trying to help this restaurant owner get a beer license, and she's right across the street from a church. Now she has to hire an attorney and go through the same process," Reed said. "Why should these businesses have to go through this expense?"

As for Sabillon, he can sell beer now, but he says business is still slow. "Business has picked up very little, because I got a reputation for not having beer."

Reed says word is slowly spreading in the Hispanic community that Sabillon fought the city.

"Most Hispanic business owners would rather keep a low profile, so what Marco did shocked the Hispanic community. He stood up and went to war."


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