Lovejoy shopkeeper Ahmed Alshami is in jail on $2 million bail but a public hearing regarding his family’s store will go on, and until that matter is decided, the Community Express Mart at Ludington and Davey streets could remain open.
Buffalo Common Council members will review possible violations by the store’s owners at a hearing at 10 a.m. Thursday in City Hall. Alshami and his wife, who holds the store’s operating license, missed a previously scheduled hearing on Aug. 15.
One person who plans on definitely being there is Colleen E. Russell.
Russell, who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years and manages a Lovejoy Awareness Facebook page with 1,200 members, wants to voice her community’s concerns that the store is a magnet for crime.
Problems arose almost immediately after the Alshami family bought the business, Russell said.
“They say the community never helped them, but they have been so negative from the beginning,” she said. “It was ... ‘We’re going to do what we want.’ It’s sad to see this happen this way. They seem to have a distorted view of what freedom in America means.”
Meanwhile, Alshami’s daughter Zahoor Ali is a regular online, defending the family business.
Russell said that a parent from School 43 told her Tuesday afternoon that, when Alshami was being arraigned on felony fraud and burglary charges in State Supreme Court, the store continued to sell tax-free Seneca cigarettes for $5 a pack.
“They tell you to put them in your waistband when you leave,” Russell said. “That’s the problem. If they’re willing to break the laws on that, what else will they do?”
One thing they were allegedly doing, according to the indictment against Alshami that was unsealed Tuesday, was buying EBT or “food stamp” cards from customers at 50 cents on the dollar, and using them at discount stores to stock the shelves of their own market.
The bigger issue, people in the neighborhood believe, is that the cash-for-cards business is part of a larger drug problem surrounding the store. Some accuse the store owners of being a front for illegal enterprises. Others say that they attract drug users and drug dealers to their corner.
Alshami himself had 10 prior arrests when he was taken into custody Aug. 19, many of them for drugs. Neighbors and Lovejoy District Councilmember Rich Fontana say the 39-year-old could be seen cruising the neighborhood on a moped at all hours making some kind of deliveries.
Neighbors say they see customers going in and out of the store without appearing to have bought anything. They see people lined up early before the store opens and hanging around late at night. Some have found needles lying on the ground.
“I would like to see the place closed, and let somebody decent get in there and open the store,” said one man who declined to give his name because he’s afraid of retaliation.
“We sit here and you see people going in and out of the store with nothing in their hands,” said a woman talking to him.
However one man, who identified himself as Sean, 24, said he’s had many positive experiences with Alshami and often takes his young children into the store. “I think he’s a good guy because if I don’t have money, I don’t have diapers, he’ll give me diapers. He’ll give me a gallon of milk.”
The store once was considered an asset, Fontana said. The councilman recalled how, when he lived just a few doors away from the store and it was known in the neighborhood as Frank’s, his son would go there almost every day.
“You wanted to buy things there now and then just to make sure they stayed open,” Fontana said. “Frank Scalisi would be turning in his grave if he knew what was going on there now.”
Russell said the issue came to a head about two years ago when Alshami posted a photo on a then-public community Facebook page raising his middle finger and telling the neighborhood his store wasn’t going anywhere and there was nothing that could be done to stop him.
He later apologized for the post.
A few weeks after he made his online remarks, a fire was set outside the store, damaging the siding. No arrests have been made in that incident, which the family blamed on residents trying to force them out.
In addition to his drug arrests, Alshami was charged last December with assault for allegedly smashing someone on the head with a bottle during an argument.
Meanwhile, Alshami’s daughter Zahoor Ali is a regular online, known to end her posts with “(Expletive) you! (Expletive) America!”
People in Lovejoy are adamant that the trouble with the Express Mart is not based on race or any anti-immigrant sentiment. The Alshamis are from Yemen.
“Our community is so diverse now, it helps us grow,” Russell said. “It’s exciting for me, we have a lot – a lot! – of great people who are doing great things here.”
She said a Middle Eastern proprietor has opened a dollar store on Lovejoy and Ideal streets and is receiving support and appreciation from the community. She said they fear that community support for new businesses could be overshadowed by the trouble with the one store, trouble that has nothing to do with the owner’s ethnicity.
“It just has to do with their business practices and how it has affected the neighborhood,” she said.
And should the family overcome its current legal problems, she said, the community still would be there to help.
“If they are able to stay open, we want to help them be on the up-and-up, to do the right thing,” Russell said.
News staff reporter Jack Howland contributed to this report.