BURLINGTON - Burlington's African-born refugees got a crash course in U.S. law and order at a recent City Hall summit. But they're not the only immigrants here challenged by their new country's rules and regs. Last week, the Burlington City Council voted not to renew the liquor license at the Springflower Market, formerly Longe Brothers, because the Azerbaijani-born owners have a history of selling alcohol to minors. The latest infraction - which the couple vigorously disputes - was the last straw for the Vermont Department of Liquor Control; Springflower had come off a two-month suspension in February for repeatedly furnishing wine and beer to underage customers.
The report that precipitated the suspension dryly documents multiple illegal transactions observed by inspectors on five different days last year. But it also paints a painful picture, in gripping prose, of a hardworking man beset by serious linguistic and cultural challenges. Screening IDs, for one. State liquor personnel spent hours teaching Mansur "Max" Aliyev the proper procedures. "Notwithstanding that re-education and while the DLC investigator was on the premises observing, Aliyev continued to sell alcoholic beverages to minors," the report reads. "This indicated to the Department that Aliyev simply did not understand what it was that he supposedly learned from the investigator in the 're-education process.'"
Communication malfunction or willful negligence? That's what members of the Burlington City Council - acting as the Local Control Commission - had to determine last week, knowing sanctions would probably put the South End corner store out of business. Liquor control is a "bifurcated system" that involves state and city regulatory bodies, explains Assistant City Attorney Nicky Fuller. Cities can suspend, but not revoke, liquor licenses, and typically make decisions about whether they should be continued. "But once we renew, the final approval is the state's," Fuller says. "In reality, it would look a little ridiculous to grant a license the state is completely opposed to."
The city's action last week made the state's next move - another license suspension hearing - unnecessary. As a result, details of the alleged May 2006 violation will never be made public. Aliyev's wife, Emma, came to the council meeting last Monday to protest the DLC's latest finding. But councilors cut her off mid-testimony because they only had time for a "brief, brief statement." While she sat before them, visibly emotional, they voted unanimously not to renew Springflower's liquor license.
The only thing tougher than fighting City Hall? Fighting it with limited English and no attorney or translator.
"We encouraged her to bring someone. She indicated she understood," Fuller explains, noting the city had tried, and failed, to locate an interpreter independently. At the time, Fuller and her colleagues were still under the impression the Aliyevs were from the Balkans - in fact, they're Russian-speaking Azerbaijanis. They got that misinformation from a local youth-rights website that praised "this wonderful Bosnian couple" at Springflower Market for making alcohol accessible to kids.
"The committee was doing everything it could to assist this family - probably more than they would if they weren't immigrants," Fuller explains. "But there's a limit to how much we can do. We can excuse you for some time, but you have to know the law. The reality is it is a public safety hazard to have underage persons consuming alcohol. You gotta get this, or we can't give you a license."
Technically, you've got to be able to read, write and speak English to sell alcohol - in Vermont, anyway. But the state has some discretion in the way it interprets that regulation, according to Bill Goggins, who heads the DLC's division of education, licensing and enforcement. In the case of Asian restaurants with linguistically challenged owners, he explains, "We may make it a condition of licensing that they have somebody on the premises who can communicate and translate to the owner as well. If we found that that person - a manager - had a day off or was out sick, we're not going to pounce and revoke a license."
Goggins acknowledges that as Vermont gets increasingly diverse, the state will need to explore ways "to meet in the middle. We'll have to work with them so they can . . . fulfill their dream of owning a business," he says. "But we have to insure that the rules and regulations are going to be abided by in terms of public safety."
Although the DLC report questions whether the Aliyevs, with their limited grasp of English, should have ever been granted a liquor license in the first place, language, ultimately, was not the reason Springflower was cut off. "Could we communicate with him? Yes. Could he communicate with us? Yes," Goggins says. And yet the violations continued.
Aliyev had no problem understanding questions or making himself understood last Sunday morning. In a thick accent, the compact 61-year-old launched into an animated description of the DLC's most recent and decisive sting. "The investigator come inside - very fast. Customer back out because scaring. He say, 'You sold minor beer.' I ask him, 'Who buy?' He say, 'You sold it.' Second time I ask him, 'Who buy?' 'It doesn't matter. You sold it.'"
With increasing agitation, Aliyev dug up a copy of the notice the DLC served him, referencing an illegal six-pack of Miller Lite. Then he pulled out a thick stack of receipts from his beer distributor. Running his finger down the page of orders, he showed - by process of elimination - that he doesn't carry that brand. "He told me, 'You sold it Miller Lite.' I no have six-packs Miller in this store. Never I sold it."
Aliyev admits to all the infractions that led to last year's suspension. But since his training, he's been vigilant, he said. "Even 28 years old, I check," he insisted, throwing a book on the counter that shows pictures of driver licenses from every state. If he's not sure about an ID, Aliyev says he sends people to another store.
Although he couldn't find exactly the right word to describe it, Aliyev seemed to be suggesting that the DLC targeted him because of his past transgressions. "He maybe one thousand times check it, and see nothing. Long time spended, he wanted something," he suggested. "He lied me and taked my sign."
What's left? An extensive supply of wine and warm beer - and a $1200 electric bill for July. There's not much in the way of inventory in the old wedge-shaped store, with its sparsely stocked shelves and worn wooden floors. Neither the caviar nor the herring advertised on the blackboard behind the counter is in stock.
"It's a missed opportunity when you take into account the neighborhood it's in," says lawyer T.J. Donovan, who grew up on Bayview Street and now lives right next door to the Springflower on St. Paul. As a kid, he worked at Longe Brothers. "That store was a neighborhood institution - a meeting place where people used to come in to get the paper, sit and talk. It's too bad that we're losing that."
Although he never officially represented the Aliyevs, Donovan wrote a letter on their behalf last October, asking the DLC to consider shortening the length of their suspension. He says he never disputed the state's allegations, but "I was asking for leniency because I know they are honest, hardworking people. They're there from 8 in the morning to midnight, every day."
The Aliyevs' schedules could be changing soon. Last week the couple put Springflower up for sale. They're asking $675,000 for the building, which includes the store and two second-floor apartments.