Anna & Roy Laos

May 9, 2014 |
Roy & Anna Laos circa April 1952. photo courtesy Anna Laos

Roy & Anna Laos circa April 1952.
photo courtesy Anna Laos

The year was 1950. Anna Laos was sitting at a table with a group of friends at Club Latino on South Stone Avenue at 16th Street, and a man with a white bandage wrapped around his head walks in the front door and up to the table.

Who is this old man?

“I didn’t know him,” Anna recalled. “He asked me to dance. The next night he came over to my house and serenaded me.”

Anna married that “old man,” Roy E. Laos, two years later. They’ve been partners in marriage, family and business ever since.

Anna Laos is sitting at her desk inside Roy’s Arizona Liquor & Food at 647 S. 6th Ave., and she has stories to tell: stories about the neighborhood, the people and the local history of Downtown. Behind her is a wall filled with framed photographs and personal mementos.

She takes one down: a restaurant menu from the Shanghai Café. “When we bought this building in 1958, it was a Chinese/American restaurant and this is an original menu.”

It lists: T-bone steak dinner – $1.85. Hamburger – 30 cents. Cup of coffee – 10 cents.

“See that picture of Ronald Reagan on the wall? He sent that to Roy after the two of them went horseback riding together in Arivaca, while he was President.”

A buzzer sounds. It’s after closing time, still Anna gets up and walks past the blue vinyl chairs, where customers can sit and talk, past the shelves filled with vintage Jim Beam decanter bottles, past the life-size cardboard figures of Elvira, Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne, and over to the sliding walk-up window.

What does the customer want? Maybe a postcard, or a plastic comb, an alarm clock, a can of beans, a blackboard eraser, or a thermos bottle. How about a craft beer or an elegant bottle of wine? It’s all here.

Anna Laos outside of Roy’s Arizona Liquor & Food. photo: Steve Renzi

Anna Laos outside of Roy’s Arizona Liquor & Food.
photo: Steve Renzi

Impatient, the customer is gone by the time Anna arrives. She looks out the window. “That’s Blind John,” she says. She knows her customers by name. “He’ll be back tomorrow.”

Anna walks back to her desk. She’s got more stories to tell: how about the time César Chavez and a group of protestors surrounded the store in the late ’60s.

“We used to sell Gallo wine and lots of it. César Chavez wanted Roy to take it off the shelves. My husband said he wouldn’t because his customers wanted it. Three weeks later, here comes a large group of protestors, led by Chavez, many of them waving red flags with what looked to me like chickens on them. They surrounded the store. I knew a lot of the protestors. Roy grabs an American flag, burst out of the store and starts waving it. Eventually, it went to court and the court ruled that we had the right to sell the wine.”

When she met Roy, he was a WWII veteran, studying to be a licensed pharmacist and also helping his father’s transit company by driving a bus. That’s why, when they first met, he was wearing a bandage around his head. Earlier that day, he had been in a minor traffic accident.

“Roy’s father started his own bus company in 1920, called the Old Pueblo Transit Company. It served the south and west sides of Tucson because the other bus company wouldn’t go south of the railroad tracks and pick up Mexicans, Blacks and Indians. He started with one Chevy truck; he attached wooden benches on the flatbed and stretched canvas over the top for shade. Sometimes, people would pay with tamales or chickens, anything they had,” said Laos.

“Roy graduated from the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy in 1952 and became a licensed pharmacist. This neighborhood was full of single-family homes, filled with families with children. As a pharmacist, Roy helped to cure a lot of kids that were sick in this neighborhood. We also raised five boys together. They all worked in the store after school; stocking shelves, cleaning and sweeping, taking the garbage out. All of them have a good work ethic and they all graduated from the University of Arizona.

“We’ve lived in Armory Park since 1960 and still live in the same house. It tore me up when I saw them tearing down the barrio to build the convention center. They wanted to do more (destruction), but we stopped them. Mayor Corbett wanted to build the Butterfield Freeway from the airport to the convention center. This would have torn down a large part of Armory Park and Safford and Carrillo schools. One freeway plan also called for elevating the wishing shrine, El Tiradito, up in the air on freeway pylons.

“Rosendo Perez and I led the protest against these plans. Mayoral candidate Lew Murphy supported us. He won the election by 360 votes. It took an election and a miracle to stop the freeway plans. I believe it was the power of the castaway of El Tiradito. After that, we helped to place the wishing shrine on the National Register of Historic Places” (added in 1971).

“We also got the Amory Park neighborhood designated as a historic neighborhood. The reason we were able to do this was because of the railroad. All the houses along South 3rd Avenue, which is right in the middle of Armory Park, were railroad houses, for the workers. The neighborhood was accepted on the national register in 1976.”

Anna Laos outside of Roy’s Arizona Liquor & Food. photo: Steve Renzi

Anna Laos outside of Roy’s Arizona Liquor & Food.
photo: Steve Renzi

Times change. The Spanish word for pharmacy, botica, is on the store signage out front, but the pharmacy has been closed for a few years. Roy is retired. Anna still works and she enjoys it. She welcomes the changes she sees happening in the surrounding neighborhood.

“I see younger people moving back in, in fact, four new couples have moved in within eyesight of the store. They are bringing a vitality and new life and I’m absolutely glad to see it.

“We have had 14 wine tastings at our store and each one has been a little more successful each time. More people are coming. That was the prime reason for them, to gather the neighbors together, so they will get to know one another.”

Institutions come in all shapes and sizes; they evolve and change. Sadly, one of the best—the mom & pop neighborhood store—is disappearing. They are neighborhood anchors and communal gathering spots. Over time, you get to know the owners and they know you. If you’re a kid, they watch you grow up and you watch them grow older. A place of memories and stories. At Roy’s Arizona Liquor & Food, you can have a conversation with owner Anna Laos, buy a bottle of beer, pick up some school supplies and on your way out, step on the vintage scale to have your weight and fortune told. Appreciate it while you still can.

Roy’s Arizona Liquor & Food is located at 647 S. 6th Ave. Hours are Monday–Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Phone (520) 623–4824.