By Lethbridge Herald on November 22, 2023.
Chris Hibbard – LETHBRIDGE HERALD – Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
One local downtown business owner has been directly impacted by homelessness and drug addiction in Lethbridge, and he’s speaking up about it.
John Pyska has owned and operated Big John’s Books for nearly 30 years. Six years ago, Pyska moved the store to a “different, and supposedly better” location, at 320 7 Street South, he says.
Pyska says at the previous location there were never any problems with crime or vandalism, but that is no longer the case.
“Things have just slowly gotten worse and worse over the years,” Pyska says. “It seemed to mildly, slowly get worse every spring, and it got even worse after the safe injection site opened. When that happened we began dealing with three times the problems we’d had prior to that, and those problems never really left even after the site closed.”
Pyska runs the store on his own, with occasional help from his mother Mary Ann and some volunteers.
Due to some of the latest issues the store has had, he is planning on installing a security gate across his store front, paying for it out of his own pocket.
“It’s gonna make us look like a prison,” Pyska said, “but at least it’ll stop them from getting inside the store.”
These issues include having the store’s door badly damaged and cracked with a rock, and the storefront window being smashed in completely so that thieves could steal the entire cash register.
“They took the cash register and smashed it into pieces in the parking lot across the street.”
The thieves were caught on the security camera of a nearby jewelry store.
“They even broke the donation jar we had on the counter to raise money for the Last Chance Cat Ranch and they stole the coins from that too,” Pyska said.
His landlord paid to replace the door, but Pyska was out $800 of his own money to replace the window.
“The police said they were going to investigate, and then they came back about 10 days later and told us that even though they were caught on camera, they couldn’t identify them. And as far as I know, no charges were ever laid against anyone for any of that stuff.”
Violence and vandalism are the two main concerns about his downtown business, Pyska said. Theft and shoplifting are not quite as bad, since a small used bookstore is “not a huge draw for thieves,” he said.
But one young woman stuffed her pants full of graphic novels in clear view of John who was watching.
“I tell her, hello… you can’t leave here with those. She called me names, got all up in my face and left. I called the cops, they caught her like 10 minutes later, and she’d already gotten rid of the books, I don’t know what she did with them.” Pyska said that this same thief came back several days later and didn’t understand why he wasn’t allowing her to come inside. “I guess maybe she just didn’t remember,” Pyska said.
He also has to deal with what he calls nearly constant acts of urination and defecation on his property.
He’s also endured threatening language, belligerent attitudes and swearing, and “one actual pushing and shoving match where I almost ended up fighting a man in the street.”
Pyska said that on three separate occasions individuals have passed out in the store. On one of these occasions a woman came in, laid on the floor in front of the checkout counter, and passed out.
Pyska said in a situation like that, he has to phone the Diversion Outreach Team number.
“There’s no other option. I have to wait for them to come. If they don’t get here for three hours, I don’t do any business for three hours.”
Pyska also described how he has to deal with a constant flow of garbage, both in front of the store and in the alley behind.
“Right now I collect two to three piles of garbage everyday. They’ll rifle through the cans and dumpsters back there and just throw everything on the ground. They’ve even taken my garbage out of the can, ripped it into pieces, and thrown the little pieces around. It’s hard to understand it,” Pyska said, “until you’ve lived it and had to clean it up.”
Pyska also worries about the optics.
“It’s bad for the whole street, for all the stores downtown. The drugs are obvious, people are walking around like zombies, swaying on their feet with their pants falling down.. . When you walk to a store and there’s a person drooling and acting erratic in front of my door, does it make you want to come in to my store? It’s just a bad image and it’s bad for business.”