Old Sacramento neighborhoods wrap the capitol like a horseshoe around a peg. Stately Victorian homes comingle with modest bungalows, turn of the century flats, and modern apartments. Under the shade of mature sycamores, elms, and magnolias, these historic neighborhoods have slept, hidden away from the suburbanization that surrounds them, somehow holding on to their character and their slow but urbane way of life. Peppered throughout the horseshoe neighborhoods are over two dozen local stores with signs that name themselves mini-markets, neighborhood grocery stores, liquor stores, or delis.
A friend of mine lives in a house on G Street. The house is what you would call a “Berkeley bungalow” and it is beautiful, but there is something about going to visit him that has always made me wary of being in midtown. My housemate was once mugged there walking with a friend; many locals have stories of cars broken into, and of transients ringing doorbells at 3 am to ask for money. And then there are the mini-marts. They seem to be everywhere, one for every four or six blocks. Sometimes people loiter outside, but usually they simply slink in and out. What are they getting there? I used to think the mini-marts were just stores of vice, you know, where people get their Almaden wine in a box, six packs of Bud Light, cigarettes, lottery tickets, pornography.
My friend tells me he used to boycott the corner market because it seemed dirty and he thought it was bringing down the value of his house. But eventually, he strolled in to buy some beer for a dinner party and discovered that the store had a most curious assortment of items: beer and cigarettes, of course, but also plastic toys, charcoal briquettes, sunglasses, and gourmet ice cream. One day, a display of men’s boxer shorts appeared next to the register.
It’s a breath of fresh air, really, to walk into a store that doesn’t have your supposed demographic pegged. Starbucks knows exactly which musicians I want crooning on my Christmas compilation CD, and the new Safeway stacks up styrofoam coolers for the fourth of July, chocolates for Valentines, cans of French’s Fried Onions for Thanksgiving. But Save-Rite Market has underwear. Save-Rite was recently taken over by an Indonesian family. The shelves are short so the cashier can monitor the entire store. This makes the store bright and cheery. The white vinyl tile floors looks like they’ve been cleaned with a toothbrush. When I visited, a teenage brother and sister were manning the front counter; the boy was playing video games on the closed circuit television.
Historian Susan Strasser writes about the emergence of the grocery store in America and argues that local grocers were undermined by large corporations who began to market their products under the assumption that the grocer could no longer be trusted to stock the best products, or the safest products. Only the known brands could be trusted. Eventually, large supermarkets who carried the best known brands began to replace mom-and-pop outfits. But these corner stores still exist across the country, and they survive mostly in marginal neighborhoods, in ethnic enclaves.
Ella Chhotulal opened the American Market and Deli with her husband in 1988 after immigrating from South Africa. Her family is Indian. All of the mini-marts I observed were being operated by ethnic minorities: Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Pakistani. They typically own the businesses and rent the space from a land owner. Though they are the hearts of their communities, they usually live outside of the neighborhood. For many, Elk Grove, a suburb just south of Sacramento, is home, from where they commute every day of the week. The stores are run as family businesses, and everyone pitches in, cleaning floors, stocking the shelves, and keeping the inventories.
Ella and her husband Eswar were fortunate to be able to buy their building some ten years ago, and that has allowed them some financial breathing room. They rent six apartments above and behind their store. They could occupy the space themselves, but they choose to live out of town because, as Ella puts it, “People, they bother you if you are around.” She says this with a laugh, and I realize that they bother her because she holds so much of the community together. She tells locals to have their parcels dropped off in the store because it isn’t safe to leave them on their porches. She keeps a list of her customers and knows them by name. She can tell you the shopping needs of her neighbors better than any Safeway clerk.
Ella boasts that she has more varieties of beer in her small shop than in the big new Safeway. The cooler is filled with micro-brews, Japanese and German beers, and all of usual American suspects. A man walks into the store, says hello, grabs a lemon, chats with Ella for a few minutes, and returns home. Ella tells me if I live nearby, I can tell her what kind of cigarettes I smoke and she will find a way to get them. She works with dozens of distributors and product reps to keep her store full. Her shelves are chaotic, a busy assortment of single items, a sea of variety that requires close tending. A cardboard box lid holds bottles of spices – not just one kind, but an assortment. When someone buys bay leaves, Ella just orders another bottle. “Sacramento is different every six months,” she says. Her customers are always changing. Now it is doctors and lawyers and teachers who indirectly decide what makes it on the shelves. Tomorrow, who knows?
In a single day wandering through Sacramento, I found 25 mini-markets of various persuasions. In the least residential parts of town, stores tend to be single use, one-story buildings, often with neon signs reading “Liquor”. Within the neighborhoods stand two story buildings with stores below and housing above. Some were built intentionally as mixed-use buildings. A few have cheap flat-roofed additions on what were once front yards. I must confess a preference for the stores built to be stores with apartments above. They are integrated into their neighborhoods in a purposeful and yet unobtrusive way. Their bay windows add character to otherwise straightforward rectangular plans, and their simple storefronts would be worthy of any preservationist’s list of historical resources. But the add-on shops have also found their place. Though awkward and often detracting from fine Victorian facades, they exist because they serve a need, and they serve it well. If it is the social function and not just the architectural heritage that we seek to preserve, these simple stores should still have a place in midtown’s neighborhoods.
If you drive to Safeway, behind the automatic doors, you will find all of the brands laid out for you that market researchers think you will buy. But walk into Save-Rite, Fremont, Shopper’s Market, or Osaka Ya, and you might be surprised to find what you really need. Shop there and you choose what goes on the shelf – spices as well as vices. Look closely and you will see much more than vice; you will see the traces of your neighbors and the markers of your community’s ever-changing tastes and needs.
1. Stasser, Susan, Satisfaction Guaranteed (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989)