Making a buck in Old Town

From The Oregonian, October 1, 1987 – by columnist Phil Stanford

Phil Stanford, Oregonian Columnist

Phil Stanford, Oregonian Columnist

At the Old Town Market, on the corner of Northwest Third and Couch, the word is definitely Thunderbird. A pint (or more precisely, 375 milliliters) costs $1. That’s not much for wine, but it’s a lot for kerosene.

The wholesale price for the same bottle is 66 cents, which gives you some idea of what Ernest and Julio Gallo think of this particular product of their vintner’s art.

Another thing it tells you is that the markup on this particular item is more than 50 percent — which begins to explain why, at least for some, the bedraggled drunks who congregate in the Old Town area are more than just a social dilemma.

They are also a dependable source of profits.

All day, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., they come and go at the Old Town Market. They put their money down and leave with bottles of T-Bird inside brown paper bags.

Outside, they deposit themselves on the sidewalk and start drinking again.

And after a while, they pass out and have to be picked up by the detox van from the Hooper Memorial Detoxification Center.

The detox center, it should be noted, is operated by a social services agency called Central City Concern.

According to Richard Harris, the director of the detox center, last year the detox van made 18,000 pickups. Nearly all were in the Old Town area.

In other words, there’s not much to distinguish the Old Town Market from any other small grocery store that specializes in selling cheap wine to winos.

In fact, the only difference worth noting is that the Old Town Market operates in space leased from Central City Concern — which, as has already been noted, operates the Hooper detox center.

It’s really quite simple.

In September 1986, with money from the city of Portland and private foundations, Central City Concern purchased the Estate Hotel to use as housing for the poor.

Along with the Beaver Hotel, which was bought about the same time, the Estate Hotel is usually considered to be the centerpiece in Mayor Bud Clark‘s 12-point plan for the indigent.

On the fourth floor of the Estate Hotel is a treatment center for recovering alcoholics who have gone through the detoxification program.

And then on the first floor, there’s Old Town Market, which sells them the wine in the first place.

If you didn’t know better, you might think of it as a full-service alcoholism treatment program.

Doesn’t this make the folks at Central City Concern feel just a little bit uncomfortable?

Not Richard Harris, the head of the detox program.

“As a treatment professional,” he said “it makes no difference to me whether they sell the wine there or four blocks away.”

Harris actually got testy when someone suggested that Central City Concern might be in a compromising position. When Central City Concern bought the hotel, he said, a 10-year lease on the store went along with the deal.

Then why did Central City Concern buy the hotel at all?

Michelle Williams, office manager at the Central City Concern, had a good answer for that one.

“We only did it because of the money,” she said. Before Central City Concern purchased the Estate Hotel, she explained, it was paying $3,000 a month for offices and other space. Now, as landlords, it makes $1,400 a month renting out the Old Town Market.

That’s a turnaround of $52,800 a year, which, as she hardly needed to point out, can pay for a lot of detoxification.

Williams, whose office is on the third floor of the Estate Hotel, said that before Central City Concern purchased the hotel, board members passed a resolution dealing with the situation.

Although profiting from wino grocery store might send “an inappropriate message to the community,” they said, it was OK to go ahead with the deal because as treatment professionals they understood that alcoholism is a “disease” that can be controlled only through “abstinence.”

As treatment professionals they could not condemn selling alcohol, because, as they put it, “The consumption and sale of alcoholic beverages does not cause alcoholism.”

Down on the street, the white detox van had stopped to pick up another satisfied customer. He was sleeping with his head in the crook his arm. Drool was running down his cheeks.

When he came to, he would no doubt be happy to hear how they had worked it out.