While thousands of successful African Americans see financial success as tickets out of black communities, Herbert and Patsy Brown used their affluence to more firmly secure their place in South-Central Los Angeles.
Brown's Metals and Salvage, which once sold up to $40 million of recycled copper to Japanese firms, made the couple wealthy.
But Patsy Brown was about a lot more than making money. Just over nine years ago, at Van Ness and Vernon avenues, she and her husband opened Papa's Grocery--a landmark business celebrated for its impeccable appearance and the quality of its merchandise.
"Her store meant pride," Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas said Monday. "From the day it opened, it was kept immaculate. It was a symbol of how small business can and should be in our community."
Brown was committed to the store, friends often said, because she knew the community needed it--and dozens more like it. Despite being robbed once and kidnaped another time, she continued to oversee the store from her small office in back, keeping from friends and customers the secret only she and her husband had shared since February--she was battling pancreatic cancer.
She lost her fight with the disease Sunday. She was 64.
"Her vision was to bring quality foods such as you'd find at Gelson's to the community," said state Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), who was once Brown's neighbor in the View Park area of Southwest Los Angeles.
At Papa's Grocery, the shelves feature name brands alongside lesser-known African American and Caribbean foods produced locally by small manufacturers or imported from Jamaica and Belize.
"I love this store; it's beautiful," said Veronica Willis, a customer who lives nearby. "At first I was surprised it was here. When I had no groceries at home, Mrs. Brown would let me shop until I could pay. She was a beautiful person."
Cleopatra Fleming, another customer, said Brown's death left her in shock. "You know you're getting fresh food here," Fleming said. "You know there is high quality and courteous people."
To make her market work, Brown had to absorb hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses--nearly $200,000 the first year, $100,000 the next--before the grocery became a neighborhood institution.
"She refused to give up or give in," said Ridley-Thomas, adding that she had "a sense of not mere optimism, but full-blown hopefulness about things to come."
"She put everything back into the market," Herbert Brown said. "She wanted to start a chain. We managed to reach break-even a few times."
Her mind was a swirling caldron of ideas. But, unlike many other dreamers, she had the resources and will to act on some of hers.
"I don't want to reach halfway," she said in a 1988 interview. "I love to make something good and marvelous out of something ordinary."
Brown was flamboyant at times, perhaps a vestige of her days as a fledgling actress before she became a contractor.
"She was always on," Watson said. "I remember when she moved to her new house. It had a theater. She said: 'I will be on stage even if I'm my own audience.' "
Although the family businesses made her financially comfortable, Brown was at the store every day--relishing the most minute details of dealing with customers and suppliers.
In South-Central, where some residents have to take at least two buses to reach the nearest full-service grocery store, Papa's Grocery became something of a mini job-training program for neighborhood youths. Just being able to earn their own money gives box boys a chance to change their lives, Brown told visitors to her store. Neighborhood youngsters besieged her, wanting to know if they could get a job once they turned 14.
Her store was spared when rioting left other businesses near hers in smoldering ruins in 1992.
She said later that customers "have supported me not because I'm black, but because I give good service to them. A lot of these other stores can't make that claim."
Her training technique for new employees was simple and direct, she once said: "The first time you're rude, you're out the door."
Back in the market's first years, when the balance sheet was gushing red ink, other business ideas swirled through Brown's imagination. Her family negotiated for nearly a year to redevelop the closed basement store at the May Co.'s Baldwin Hills store. Their plan was to put in a theater, specialty shops and a restaurant around a common area that could be used for private functions. But that deal never materialized after the parties were unable to agree on financing.
For more than a year, walls in her small office at the rear of her store were covered with architectural plans and artist's renditions of "The Dons," a 47-unit luxury condo development she planned for the Baldwin Hills.
Her family's construction company was moving along briskly with building the development's first phase when Southern California's free-falling real estate market forced her husband to shut down work on it in 1991.