Ung Hwa Choi isn’t impressed by RiNo. During his 28 years behind the counter of Joe’s Liquors, at 2644 Larimer Street, he’s outlasted auto-body shops and manufacturing plants, as well as some of the hip retail stores and art spaces that replaced them after the area was branded with the nickname in 2005.
In the decades that he’s owned Joe’s, Choi — who’s called “Mr. Joe” by his regulars — has resisted many offers to buy the building that houses Joe’s, some made long before the area became the hot spot it is today. But don’t take him for a stubborn holdout against change: He simply wants to evolve with the neighborhood on his own terms.
When Choi moved to this part of north Denver in 1985, it was “a ghetto place,” he recalls. “Real dangerous here. Neighbors were not too good.” And when he bought Joe’s Liquors from a friend in 1989, the building wasn’t much better than its surroundings: It had a leaky roof, and the floors were so warped that water would collect in little pockets around the store. Little by little, he made changes — fixing the leaks and floors — but the store itself remained basically the same. Today its barred windows and worn-out Budweiser sign are relics of a time when robberies were his biggest concern and junkies littered the alleys on the surrounding blocks.
In the mid-’90s, the first big change to the neighborhood informally known as NoDough came not in the form of developers wanting to build massive apartment complexes, but Volunteers of America, a highly respected nonprofit organization that has run food banks and shelters and offered other services for the poor and homeless for over a century. To clear a path for new administrative headquarters, the VOA bought and demolished buildings on the southeastern side of the 2600 block of Larimer. Caught in the middle was Choi’s liquor store, as Westword reported back in 2000. The VOA’s offer was too low for Choi. But when he asked for more, the VOA refused, and negotiations stalled.
“Many years ago, we explored purchasing the store to unify the Volunteers of America’s administrative building,” recalls VOA head Dianna Kunz, “but we moved on when the price wasn’t a good fit.” In fact, the VOA wound up wrapping its new structure around Choi’s building. The VOA’s relationship with Choi is civil, says spokeswoman Patina Grayson, but the organization would still prefer to have the whole block.
That wasn’t the only offer Choi would receive as the neighborhood evolved into what was then Denver’s most popular arts district and fast becoming a target of developers. He adapted to the changes by introducing some pricey wines and local beers, and kept working his twelve-hour days while building relationships with customers and brushing off what he considered lowball offers. The most recent wound up making headlines.
To learn more about what Choi is holding on to, I stop by Joe’s Liquors around 10 p.m. on a Saturday. Since he works until midnight most days, he’s easy to find. “Very busy,” he says, grinning. “Always very busy on Saturday.”
And he’s right: Out in front, a few guys are asking people for money and smokes; inside, a line of five or six people clog the one-room store. The line continues to grow over the next few minutes, as customers come to buy everything from mid-range red wines and IPAs to 24-ounce Camo Cans and pints of the cheapest whiskey. They’re a diverse bunch in terms of race, income and age — certainly more so than the clientele in nearby bars and restaurants — and a few say they are living on the streets or in shelters. But most have plans to drink back home with friends. If there’s anything that brings together young and old RiNo, it could be Choi’s cheap booze.
Directly across the street is the enormous Denver Central Market that RiNo developer and landlord Ken Wolf opened last year. Some of the panhandlers leave Joe’s Liquors to try their luck over there.
When Choi went to renew his liquor license in June, Wolf and other business leaders sent letters to the city licensing officer, recommending that his license be reconsidered at a renewal hearing — a pretty rare move. “Joe’s does not do business in good faith,” read one letter. “Each morning there is a line of visibly intoxicated individuals — many of whom appear to have slept on the street — lined up waiting for the store to open.”
Choi’s defenders responded quickly, charging Wolf with wanting to own the liquor store himself. Supporters gathered to wave signs that read “Gentrification in Progress” and “Welcome to RiNo: Poor People Keep Out.”
Jamie Licko, president of the RiNo Art District, brokered a neighborhood agreement to solve the problem. It called for Choi to promise to keep his storefront clean and sell only to sober people — which he says he’s been doing all along. By signing, he avoided the renewal hearing, but there are still tensions in the neighborhood. “I think that people are still so angry about the situation, I don’t think they want to acknowledge that we had actually come to a peaceful resolution,” Licko says.
Wolf is particularly glad the situation was resolved. “It was never my intent to have the liquor license revoked or to shut Joe’s down,” he says. Although he denies that he wants to have his own liquor store, he does acknowledge that he’d offered to buy Choi’s space in the past.
Choi says Wolf’s offer was below market price — much like the VOA’s offer.
Choi seems to relish his role as a thorn in the side of developers, smiling and laughing as he recalls all the attempts to buy and develop Joe’s. So it’s somewhat surprising to hear that he has some development plans of his own. He’s thinking about taking out a loan to create a fresh storefront and add an upstairs patio to his store.
“I want to change inside, outside — yes, to clean it up,” he says.
As I join the line to buy a pack of cigarettes, I ask Alex Pak, a University of Colorado Denver student working the cash register, whether the neighborhood conflict has ever spilled into Joe’s.
“There’s not any tension,” he says. “It is a really special place. We’re all fam here.”
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