Thank goodness for corner stores. In the age of COVID-19, convenience stores and specialty markets have come into their own. Along with providing basic provisions (and then some), these independently owned businesses are often a hub for their communities — a place to pick up groceries, household goods and the latest neighborhood news. Nosh is paying tribute to a few of them. We fully acknowledge this is just a tiny sample — so please leave a comment telling us about your favorite neighborhood store and how it’s rising to the challenge of serving its community during a public health crisis.
My favorite corner store, Colusa Market, feels like an old friend. Back in what feels like the Pleistocene era, I worked daily as an American Sign Language (ASL) court interpreter. After driving to assignments all around Northern California, I’d often ditch my car at home and walk the 10 minutes to Colusa Market, nestled on the Berkeley-Kensington border, to pick up provisions for dinner, while unwinding from my day. The sweet cashiers, who often wore flowered-patterned aprons, would smile and admire my equally flowered backpack.
I’ve always appreciated Colusa Market’s fresh produce, especially the ample organic section (at surprisingly reasonable prices); and, as someone who has to eat gluten-free, also its generous collection of wheat-free goodies, including cookies, crackers, cereal and the best rice pastas from Tinkyada.
Colusa Market is a conundrum, full of functional items, such as its year-round supply of cranberry sauce, as well as exceptional ones, like the large collection of Bob’s Red Mill products, including almond, buckwheat and tapioca flours, plus an ample array of Asian noodles and sauces. This little market also introduced me to many new products, like organic, low sugar Crofter’s Jams from Canada, Califia Farms almond milk, and fig and olive tapenade.
It was a shock in mid-March to inch along its slender aisles with dozens of other shoppers and see the stress in the cashiers’ faces, but things have calmed down now. It’s not too crowded, and the neighbors all earnestly follow social distancing. From the looks on shoppers’ faces, and the thanks I hear them offer the staff, it seems we are united in gratitude to have the option of shopping in this cozy, well-curated space, instead of the larger, impersonal supermarkets a few blocks away.
The owner, Ike Joh, 64, acquired Colusa Market 28 years ago from his father, Ken Joe, who ran it from 1987-1992. Ken had moved to the U.S. in 1977 to pursue a new dream.
Ike Joh was born in South Korea and worked there as a chemical engineer for Hyundai before he moved to the U.S. in 1985 for a better life, he told me recently. He intended to continue his studies but did not have the required green card for seven years. So, he worked 70 hours a week at a corner market in Los Angeles to save money for his future. Then while his father, mother and brother ran Colusa Market, Ike had a much smaller corner store near Mills College, but four robberies there convinced him to give up that store. His father, who had gotten tired of running Colusa Market, sold him the business.
I also found out why Colusa Market has such an exquisite collection of fresh produce. Mr. Joh gets up at 4 a.m. four times a week and drives to the produce market in San Francisco to buy the best fruit and vegetables.
“We started selling organic produce before Safeway,” he said. “We wash all the produce, too. No one wants to buy scallions with dirty roots,” he said, lovingly showing me the greens. He is also proud of his meat market that sells Niman Ranch meats, Mary’s chickens and roasts its own BBQ chickens (which unfortunately have always been sold out by the time I arrive).
Besides the predictable gaps on the shelves for toilet paper, peanut butter, flour, yeast and cleaning supplies, the egg case is also often bare now. Joh said that’s because he only carries eggs from Petaluma, “where there is more space and the chickens can have a better life and make better eggs.” Given the shortages, he often stays at work until 9 or 10 p.m. trying to order the things that are hard to find.
Colusa Market is doing about double its normal business, and, along with its regular customers, some of whom have been shopping here for 30 years, the store is attracting many new shoppers. The last time that happened, he remembers, was in 1994, when the workers at both Safeway and Lucky went on a nine-day strike at the same time.
A corner store is like an old dependable friend, but perhaps it’s the friend we take for granted until she offers support during a crisis and we realize just how important she is to us.
I don’t take Colusa Market for granted anymore. I revel in its organic apples and kale, buy an extra package of gluten-free chocolate cookies and thank the friendly cashiers who now stand safely behind plexiglass panels. I can tell they are smiling back at me underneath their masks.