Volume XVIII, Number 43
January 21 - 28, 1993


By Bill Kirk

How has such a seemingly non-descript, catch-all of a store as Rodney's Cigars and Liquors at 10th and J downtown gained its notoriety? And why do the customers keep coming back?

In the morning chill outside the store, a small group of young men wait near the corner for the store to open or for friends to join them. Dressed in variations of the street uniform of sweats, warm-up jacket, sports cap and sneakers, they huddle as if planning their next pass play. Further up the sidewalk near J's Café, other people wait for the bus, perhaps the number 30 or the 63. It's now 7:00 a.m. on Monday and the parade of foot traffic and cars begins to pick up as the street in front of Rodney's comes to life.

Kitty-corner from the store, an old man crosses the street at the light, slowly but deliberately from Plaza Park. Although he is 80 years old, he is still one of the first of Rodney's customers almost every day of the week. Dressed in coveralls and a well-cared-for brown leather sports jacket, the man known as "Snapper" makes his daily purchase, a large bag of unsalted peanuts, then returns to the park to begin his ritual feeding of the squirrels.

"Come on over heah!" he yells again and again and suddenly, as if on cue, at least three dozen squirrels and sparrows appear around him. At first suspicious of a stranger in a suit with questions, with a little coaxing as he continues to fee the squirrels, he tells me about the origins of his name.

"I used to work at the Southern Pacific foundry pouring molten steel to make train wheels and I learned real quick that I had better move fast to keep from getting' burned." From then on Snapper says he was called 'Whipper Snapper.'

"It was long, hard, hot work for only a few dollars a day. But those were the days when a dollar was real money. At least you can get some good deals across the street at Rodney's."

From the vantage point of the sidewalk outside, the view inside the store is deceiving. Although there is little evidence of what the store actually sells inside, the large storefront window on either side of the entry offers several curious clues. One is filled with sports caps for the most discriminating fan. In the other, a single "classic cigarette holder" strapped to its cardboard package stands as a lone sentry guarding a window display that can only be described as eclectic. There are Desert Storm "commemorative" zippo lighters alongside a mixed selection of work gloves, fanny packs, pocket knives, magnifying glasses, scissors and a variety of first aid kits.

Inside Rodney's, the merchandise is even more varied than that in the window. Neat racks of self-service food staples and snacks are juxtaposed with premium wines and pipe tobacco, condoms and key chains. You can buy a lottery ticket or rent a "blue movie." Or if you are a new father, you can even find a box of bubble gum cigars for your non-smoking friends. Rodneys's is nothing if not egalitarian.

The cigars and liquors proclaimed in the store's name are generally located behind the counter. They are available by request, as are the specialty Brebbia and Meerschaum pipes that go for as much as $175 each. However, for the less discriminating pipe smoker, just out of reach above the newspaper racks are the Dr. Grabow pre-smoked pipes, including the timeless corn cobs, for under $4.

The current owner, Sam Abukhdair, told us that since he took over the store with his brother Isaac in 1980, business has been good. "Rodney's has been on this corner since about 1974 when it moved from its original location at 100 J Street. Almost everyone who lives or works downtown knows about us." In fact, some of their older regulars tell stories of a Sacramento long past.

Browsing inside the store, one old man known by Abukhdair only as Max, recalls that downtown Sacramento was booming with hotels, movie houses and bars after World War II since it was the last cheap stop for a lot of men going through San Francisco to Korea. As a "cash and carry," Rodney's was just one part of the economic fabric of that era. And today some of the mystery and allure of the past still remains.

By 8:00 a.m. the pre-work rush is in full swing. Abukhdair says most of the early trade is from federal, state and local government workers and business people who drop by to pick up newspapers, cigarettes and snacks. He carries at least a dozen major papers from in and out of state, as well as the Wall Street Journal, Barron's and The Racing Forum.

Abukhdair remembers when Ronald Reagan was governor, he would have his limousine driver stop on the way to the capitol to pick up a copy of The Los Angeles Times. By contrast, he said, "Jerry Brown was more likely to walk the two blocks from the capitol to get his own copy."

As to the obvious question about how the Abukhdair brothers had decided on opening Rodney's, he said they had come to the United States from Jerusalem seeking a better life following the Six-Day War in 1967. "We knew we could not hope to establish our lives where we were living north of Jerusalem in the West Bank, so we followed the trail of some of our relatives who had already come to California." Rodney's came on the market at about the time they arrived in the Golden State.

The nature of both the business and the variety of their customers seem to suit Abukhdair just fine. "W get down-and-outers looking for something to take the chill off as well as up-and-comers looking for an investment edge in the market." He notes with some pride, however, that "regardless of their station in life outside the store, their customers all have equal status in the check-out line."

Abukhdair has also been pleased with their decision to add a lottery machine. In February 1988, a nearby merchang won $10 million with a ticket bought at Rodney's. "Our portion from that winning ticket amounted to $50,000. But that was almost five years ago, so we are due again," he jokes. Lucille Caraglio, a regular customer for the past 34 years, says she buys a lottery ticket nearly every day. "I won't mind if Rodney's gets credit when I win the big one," she says with a laugh.

Although the popularity of cigars might have come and gone, those looking for them can still get a good cigar at Rodney's. Abukhdair classifies his cigars according to quality and price, from a 37-cent Prince Edward to his most expensive at $12.95, hand rolled and wrapped in the Dominican Republic. Abukhdair also didn't hesitate to recall the effect of California's tobacco tax, which he said adds nearly 40 percent to the cost of every cigar.

Standing in line to check out were a man and a woman both in business suits and a fellow known as "the preacherman" waiting to buy his daily half-pint bottle. Entering the store was a young woman, Alisa Althoff, in jeans and a sweatshirt who said she shope here because the place is conveniently located between her two jobs. "Some people are intimidated by this area of town but I don't really mind it during the day," Althoff said. Tracy Shaul, currently employed at Espresso Metro while on winter break from UC Santa Cruz, agreed. "I think it's too risky to come into this area at night, especially alone."

Abukhdair readily acknowledges that many in the community may regard some of his customers cautiously. He adds, however, that the people who spend their time in and around the park consider the area their home and Rodney's as an important, integral part of their neighborhood.

"Since the store is the only area establishment open late at night, there are no other alternatives for my late night regulars. If anything, they tend to be generally protective of the store and I believe they would help us if there were any trouble," he says.

Customer Anthony Colvin, in the store around noon one day, said, "These are good people and I'm glad the place is here for us. You can count on getting what you need at this store." Exchanging friendly banter with Ed, the daytime counterman, Colvin joked, "Anytime I want snacks or an argument, I know I can get it here!"

Abukhdair believes that his store's operation helps to combat crime. "By keeping our store open later in the evening, both my workers and our customers support each other by acting as watchers along this stretch of J Street for up to 16 hours a day," he says. He feels this also provides added security to some of the other surrounding businesses, most of which close earlier in the evening. "The police can't anticipate trouble everywhere, so it's good to have the help of extra eyes and ears at night."

In fact, it was because Rodney's was open late on a rainy night about two weeks ago that Sam's brother Kay, who works the late shift behind the counter, was able to thwart a serious incident. As he tells it, "A young woman cam running into the store screaming hysterically that someone was holding her boyfriend at knifepoint. I immediately called 911 and the police responded in time." Had Rodney's not been open, the outcome might have been different.

Sam Abukhdair himself described a very different, heart-gugging incident which occurred six or seven years ago between two of his customers. According to Abukhdair, a well-dressed middle-aged man came in one evening and bought some expensive wine and a magazine. While he was in the store, two older transients came in for cigarettes and a more modestly priced bottle. As the three customers waited to make their purchases, the first gentleman seemed to recognize one of the transients, whose dental work clearly showed that he was not well cared for.

"Are you (Joe Smith)? The man nodded in response. "Were you in (such and such an) outfit in Korea?" Again, the man answered in the affirmative. Amazed, the two men proceeded to reminisce for a few moments. Then the gentleman took $20 out of his wallet and gave it to the old man who had been his sergeant in Korea over 30 years before.

A city is a place where people of diverse backgrounds intersect, if only for fleeting moments. Rodney's is certainly at the center of this activity.

Remember the preacherman who was in the store earlier? "I spent 24 years in an Arizona penitentiary from 1955-79 and I'm not gonna do anything will put me back in there. Now this is the place I live." These days he keeps a Bible in one coat pocket and a bottle in the other, trying hard to stay on the good side of the law.

So, he continues to live on the streets and around the park where his friends are, with periodic trips to the Front Street detoxification center and to Rodney's where they know him well. In some ways, then, Rodney's is a warm and well-lit place for many of those on the street like the preacherman.

In the park across the street, we could hear the steady deep bass beat of "Cut The Cake" by Average White Band, as a group of "neighborhood" kids were kicking it and matching dance steps, making their own entertainment in the heart of downtown.

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Copyright © 1993 by the Suttertown News and 2002-2015 by billkirkwrites. All rights reserved