Mimi is an unlikely entrepreneur. At 21, the Ethiopian native has a 1-year-old son and a 1-month-old grocery store. "My cousin has a gas station, and I used to run it for him, help him out," she says in thickly accented English. "This is the first time I'm opening my own."
So far, business at her McLean location has been slow. But Mimi, who asked to be identified by her nickname, got a bit of good news last week when the City Council repealed a rule that prohibited stores from selling beer within 500 feet of churches and schools.
For much of the city's history, the alcohol commission has had the authority to decide who can and cannot sell booze. Two years ago, however, a council amendment established the distance guidelines.
"The effect was a number of lawsuits," Councilman Jack Sammons said during a public safety committee meeting, "all of which we've lost, and at great expense to the city."
In Mimi's case, the store's previous tenants were grandfathered under the old rule and allowed to sell beer. But Mimi wasn't.
"They told me that the store had a beer license," says Mimi. "After I signed the lease, I found out that it's not in place anymore ... I can't break a lease. The judge would put it on me. If you sign a lease, it's your problem."
She thinks beer sales might affect her store's bottom line. But Councilman Joe Brown thinks beer sales might affect her neighborhood.
At the committee meeting, Brown argued that the police didn't visit the area around Mimi's store often enough.
"I don't think the neighbors want anyone to sell beer within the confines of the neighborhood," said Brown. "If a young kid wants beer or something, the police can't control that. He'll ask a person addicted to drugs and alcohol, 'If I give you a dollar, will you buy you a beer and buy me a beer?' We just can't continue ... it's destroying our children."
Mimi was surprised by Brown's comments:
"He was saying that I would sell beer to minors. I don't know why he was saying that. I would never do that. If you're not old and gray, we'll check your ID. I do not want to get in trouble."
Mimi has never spoken to Brown. Before her appearance at council, she had only seen him on television. She still can't understand if he was actually talking about her store or someone else's. But Brown's automatic reaction -- because alcohol is involved -- is that she'll single-handedly destroy the neighborhood and its children.
The 500-feet ordinance isn't the only alcohol-related piece of legislation politicians have discussed lately. City school board member Jeff Warren recently proposed allowing liquor sales on Sunday, with the resulting taxes going to local education. The idea first needs the support of the school board and would then go to the state level. But there seems to be a prevailing mindset that having a drink on a Sunday is wrong -- even if it ultimately benefits education -- so the proposal has not generated much enthusiasm.
"I can understand how they feel," Warren said of the proposal's opponents. "My thinking is that if you feel it's not a good thing to do, then you shouldn't do it. I understand, but I'm trying to find money for our kids."
Warren points out that early investment can save money in the long run. Communities with higher rates of education have lower incarceration costs and greater tax bases. The Memphis City Schools system has had to cut millions of dollars from its budget in the last few years. Yet the idea will probably stall for the same reason the city had a 500-feet beer barrier for two years.
Sometimes I wonder what people think is going to happen if we relax our alcohol-sales laws. If you sell beer within 500 feet of a school, are students really more likely to drink? If we allow liquor to be sold on Sundays -- never mind that you can already buy beer on that day -- will society crumble? Legislating morality, no matter how it's done, seldom works. And states that no longer have such antiquated "blue laws" seem to be surviving quite nicely.
"You have to think about it equitably," Warren said. "We have a lot of people whose Sabbath is Saturday. Some people have theirs on Friday, and we sell liquor on their Sabbath."
Warren said the idea was simply a brainstorm about how to raise money for schools without raising property taxes. He has also considered proposing a per-pack tax to cigarettes and directing that money to schools.
"The problem for most politicians is to think about next quarter or next year," he said. "We've got to start thinking about the next 20 years. It's an investment into our future."
And that's something we can -- or should -- drink to, even on Sunday.