On the corner: Stores that bring life to our neighborhoods

Ashby Super Market, on the corner of Ashby and MLK. All photos: Christina Diaz

The corner store is a vital indicator of the economic, racial, and cultural makeup of any community. What people buy — whether it’s Coke or coconut water, deli meat or goat cheese, Hostess cakes or gluten-free baked goods, cheap hard liquor or expensive artisan brews — offers insight into the kinds of customers that frequent a business and their purchasing power.

For many people, the corner grocer remains their main — or only — source of sustenance. And, perhaps, equally importantly, a gathering place in a given neighborhood.

Some corner stores unapologetically flaunt booze and fast food, others offer ethnic staples or specialty foods, still others a combo of both. The products on the shelves — eclectic and quirky as they sometimes are (incense and pantyhose alongside a sea of cigarettes and processed salty or sugary food-like substances wrapped in fluorescent-colored packaging) provide clues to the character of the surrounding community.

The owners and managers who work behind the counters have their own tales to tell. Corner stores in cities around the country are traditionally run by immigrants and Berkeley is no exception. Of the five stores profiled below, all located on or close to Ashby Avenue, four owners have roots in Yemen, one is a first-generation American whose father was also a storekeeper.

Many corner store owners come in search of a better life for their families with hopes for a brighter future. English is often not their first language, some deal with crime and violence in or near their stores, and they’re not immune to hardship or hard work. Some become integral to their communities, others prefer to toil in relative anonymity.

In the first of an occasional series on Berkeley’s corner stores, we set out to get a taste of the flavor of five such grocers in South Berkeley.

Ashby Marketplace

Ramiz Hasan stands next to his extensive gluten-free section at Ashby Marketplace.

Ashby Marketplace on Ashby Street at College Avenue

Owner: Ramiz Hasan, 30, owned store for two years this October, has worked in corner stores in San Francisco with his father since the age of 12.

Hometown: Born and raised in the Bay Area.

Best-selling items: Flavored drinks, teas, organics, gluten-free goods, chocolate, deli sandwiches.

Clientele: “As eclectic as the community: Local residents, intellectuals from the university, including brilliant students, tourists, vivacious people, busybodies, a little bit of everything.”

What’s next: Expanded tea and gluten-free section and beer and wine in the Berkeley store. Plans to open an organic convenience store in San Francisco.

Claim to fame: Friends since high school with San Francisco sandwich guru Ike Shehadeh, who’s been known to pop by Ashby Marketplace. Last month, Shehadeh posted a tweet when he spotted the actress Jennifer Garner in line at Hasan’s store after she’d attended a breakfast for First Lady Michelle Obama at the Claremont Hotel.

Ashby Super Market

Store owner's sons Abdul Hadi, 10, and Murad Hussein, 14, with manager Obaida Jaber of Ashby Super Market on MLK.

Ashby Super Market on Ashby at Martin Luther King Way

Owner: Anwar Hussein, 36, whose family hails from Yemen, has run this store for five years. He lives in Oakland and has four sons and a daughter, who is soon to be married.

Manager: Obaida Jaber, 34

Best-selling items: Deli sandwiches, cold cuts, and falafel, pita, and hummus.

Clientele: “All kinds: African-American, Anglo, Middle Eastern.”

Store pros: “The location: Close to BART, the flea market, library, and theatre.”

Claim to fame: Frequented by actors and other theater types from nearby Ashby Stage.

Secret to success: “We sell no alcohol so we have no problems. It’s a good community here.”

Sacramento Market

Owner Yaser Musid has expanded Sacramento Market's produce section.

Sacramento Market on Sacramento Street at Ashby

Owner: Yaser Musid, 40, has owned this market for just over two years and the nearby Friendly Market (at California and Ward Streets) for 18 years.

Hometown: Yemen, has lived in the U.S. for 20 years.

Best-selling items: A mix of grocery, deli items, beer and wine. Extensive spice selection. No hard liquor.

Clientele: “About 90-95 percent African American.”

Recent improvements: “More produce.”

Challenges: “Everything is so expensive. There’s not too much profit in the business anymore.”

Family matters: “I don’t want this life for my children. It’s fine for me to keep going here but I want my children to have opportunities and a better life. When you run a corner store you have to keep your eye on everything. No corner store for my children.”

McGee’s Market

Eli Amhadi of McGee's Market lives across the street from the store he owns.

McGee’s Market on McGee Avenue at Oregon

Owner: Eli Amhadi, 43, owned business for 15 years, lives across the street, has three children.

Hometown: Yemen

Best-selling items: A variety of grocery goods. Sells beer and wine, no hard liquor.

Clientele: “A mix of people, mostly from the neighborhood, most come in every day. It’s a good neighborhood. We never have problems. I know my customers and they know me.”

Pros: “I like to work for myself. I don’t like having a boss and having to do what someone else tells me to do.”

Cons: “It’s all I know how to do. It’s the only job I’ve ever done. I work seven days a week.”

J&B Fine Foods Market

Faiz Kaid manages J&B Fine Foods for his brother Ali Kassim.

J&B Fine Foods Market on Adeline Street at Harmon

Owner: Ali Kassim

Manager: Faiz Kaid, 40, Kassim’s brother, who has lived here 11 years. Kaid, who has seven children, lives above the store, as does Kassim, who has four children.

Hometown: Yemen. “When we first came here we were afraid for our children. We’d heard stories about kidnappings. But my children can walk to school here and I know people in the neighborhood look out for them.”

Best-selling items: Fried foods like chicken and chips, meat, sodas, candy. No longer sells alcohol.

Clientele: “A mix of black, white, Mexican, and Middle Eastern.”

Customer loyalty, part one: “One day a long time ago now, some guy came in and snatched a bunch of stuff and ran out of the store. My brother and I chased after him like a couple of crazies all the way down to San Pablo Avenue. We left the store wide open. When we came back, we found a regular customer who had closed the doors and wouldn’t let anyone in. She had seen what happened and was standing watch until we got back.”

Customer loyalty, part two: “Sometimes our customers are short a few cents and that’s okay. They always bring us the money next time. It’s not like they’re going anywhere.”

Cons: “Long days, long hours, not much money, sitting in the same place every day for years.”

Family matters: “My kids are getting an education, so they won’t have to do this job. They can be whatever they want to be. They will be something and have a good life.”

[Hat-tip: The Bold Italic for their post Life on the Corner, which profiled grocery store owners in San Francisco's Western Addition and inspired this story.]

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.  Photographer Christina Diaz likes to shoot life as it happens.

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  • Guest

    Is there really utility in taking swipes at people based on where they live? I don’t live in the Claremont area, but if I did I would be personally offended at your repeated “gated community” jabs. I understand that you’re a committed South Berkeley activist, and that’s great – but it doesn’t make your opinions the only valid ones. Whenever you disagree with someone, you tend to invoke the “I live here/you don’t” argument as justification of your point of view and dismissal of theirs. I don’t live in South Berkeley, which apparently makes my thoughts on anything regarding the area totally moot – never mind that I visit friends who work in the area, shop/dine there upon occasion, or simply that, fundamentally, everyone in Berkeley is entitled to their own *perfectly valid* opinion regarding the city they live in.

  • http://www.webhamster.com/ The Sharkey

    “everyone in Berkeley is entitled to their own *perfectly valid* opinion regarding the city they live in

    Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but having a valid opinion requires experience, and most of the kind of people who live in the Claremont area or in the upper reaches of the hills or in Kensington have not spent enough time in the poorer parts of town (like South Berkeley) to know what it’s really like there.

  • lauramenard

    opinion yes,

    Facts and knowledge are not opinions.  Having been directly engaged in thee fight to ensure Ashby Super Market use permit did not include alcohol sales makes my original statement background information not opinion. The reference to the “gated community” is just one of many colorful expressions my family has adopted over  35 years of living the differences in city zoning and services.

    Read my original post which created the debate about the affect of corner store I provided background facts for  readers and the author to consider the subtext of store owners comments.

  • DC

    Good lord.  How would you know?  Maybe they grew up there.  Maybe they work down there.  Maybe they have family there.  That’s a pretty darn big assumption, and you frankly are just stereotyping.

  • http://www.webhamster.com/ The Sharkey

    …which is why I qualified my statement by saying most of, DC.

    But by and large, folks who grow up in the badlands of South Berkeley just don’t grow up to buy multi-million dollar homes in Claremont. The myth of upward social mobility in America and all that.

    http://www.google.com/search?q=myth+class+mobility+america

  • Boredberkeleyan
  • TN

    I haven’t made a study of corner stores in Berkeley but I’ve been around long enough to put together these incomplete observations.

    There were a fair number of corner liquor stores in Berkeley operated by African Americans until about 10, 15, 20 years ago. They often had the same problems that the newer immigrant operated stores have today. Their stock (or business “model”) was much the same.
    One of the things that these African American operated stores had in common was that the operators were all close to the age when they wanted to retire. Selling the stores to the highest bidder would have made sense to fund their retirement. Many of the operators didn’t have offspring or family who wanted to take over. Also I recall one of the owners complaining bitterly of “black on black crime” making life difficult. He didn’t want his children getting into the business. It is a hard way of making a living.Liquor stores are often sold by realtors. They are, or at least were, listed on the MLS. The prime assets of these stores are not the stock or the lease but the liquor license. The hard liquor license can be sold independently of the store itself.It looks as if the current immigrant operators of these stores had the most wherewithal to buy the stores as the older owners got out of the business.One of the interesting things about the troubles at corner liquor stores is that a few constantly seem to be the hub of trouble while another close by or even across the street don’t have any. Their stock might be the same and be operated by people who are equally new to America. I can only conclude that some individual business owners know how to manage their business and that others are either clueless or intentionally pretending to be so.

    I have some sympathy for the operators of these stores. It can be a difficult job. One owner, an immigrant from Asia, told me in exasperation of his learning that he wasn’t supposed to sell “Chore Boys” (a brass pot scrubbing pad) because they abet drug use. As he put it, “how would I have known?” It was another store owner who spoke his native language who told him about it. It is a bizarro world where cleaning products and plastic sandwhich bags are items that a store owner isn’t supposed to sell. This owner sold his store as soon as his children graduated from college.

  • lauramenard

    TN description of black flight and the importance of good operating standards is accurate.

    One correction though
    “The prime assets of these stores are not the stock or the lease but the liquor license.”  should be “use permit”  which remains with the property unless the city revokes it. Which is why we have one liquor store every 500′ in beat 12.

    Local land use regulations determines where alcohol sales are permitted.
    Crime and social disorder are directly related to how a corner store is operated.

    I have plenty of sympathy for the operators, and will always ally those who are serious managers following good operating standards.

    I have little sympathy for the “Berkeley Betters”  who attempt to school me  about  local context.

    “Where you stand depends on where you sit”

    I live here in beat 12, and was a member of BAPAC, we drafted a set of operating standards based on best practices at the request of the city of Berkeley. We are still waiting for the city to complete the process.

  • lauramenard

    guest,

    please provide me with any details of the last gunfight between local gangs in the Claremont area?

  • Bruce Love

    re (to Ms. Menard): ” I understand that you’re a committed South Berkeley activist,”

    I just don’t want you to have the impression that, in general, she speaks for our neighborhood.

  • DC

    Ummm…so Claremont people don’t speak for the neighborhood, people who live there who you disagree with don’t speak for the neighborhood, clearly these business owners don’t speak for the neighborhood based on all the negative comments.  So basically – what – you do?  One guy who lives in a house at the exact geographical center of the neighborhood does? 

    Anyone can speak for the neighborhood.  Presumably dollars and cents speak the loudest however at the end of the day, and they keep these stores in business.

  • Bruce Love

    re DC saying “Anyone can speak for the neighborhood.”

    Well, no, not really.    Nobody can, of course.

  • Bruce Love

    re DC saying “Anyone can speak for the neighborhood.”

    Well, no, not really.    Nobody can, of course.

  • http://www.webhamster.com/ The Sharkey

    Well, obviously she doesn’t speak for the element of the neighborhood that is made up of the drunks, thugs, and criminals that reside in South Berkeley.

    A good number of people in South Berkeley make a living through criminal enterprise, and are very concerned with keeping things they way they are now.

  • deirdre

    Sarah, thanks for selecting a different aspect of the local food system as your topic of the week.  To me, our Berkeley food obsessions can seem precious to the point of being totally irrelevant.  I’m glad for the chance to think about these other businesses which are hiding in plain sight.

  • JudgeBork

    Sarah Henry states:
    “In the first of an occasional series on Berkeley’s corner stores, we set
    out to get a taste of the flavor of five such grocers in South
    Berkeley.”

    College and Ashby are not part of South Berkeley – it is part of the Claremont neighborhood. Sarah you should fact-check yourself.

    Sarah Henry states:
    “On the corner: Stores that bring life to our neighborhoods”

    In our neighborhood we are trying to shut every one of these stores down as they are a nuisance, attract alcoholics, crime, and prostitution. Liquor stores selling junk food and attracting nefarious characters have no place next to family-oriented neighborhoods. Our Berkeley (not Claremont 92% white; $1M+ homes) experience is that:

    “On the corner: Stores that bring LOW LIFE to our neighborhoods”

    What is perplexing is that you pretend to be writing an article on how these stores bring life to the neighborhoods but seem to focus on why the owners are running these businesses after immigrating. The article is a failure as it does not address how these stores bring life to our neighborhoods. Perhaps if you visited these stores at midnight your article would have had a darker perspective.