Serious Reads: 'My Korean Deli,' by Ben Ryder Howe
Convenience stores, bodegas, and delis populate any urban area, and in New York City it seems there can be one—or even two—on every block, hawking cigarettes, groceries, and coffee to impatient city folk. Running such a shop is not a glamorous job, so when Paris Review editor Ben Ryder Howe announced he wanted to invest his family's meager savings in a corner store, he was met with exasperation and confusion. In My Korean Deli: How I Risked My Career and Mortgaged my Future for a Convenience Store, he recounts his tumultuous experiences managing a Brooklyn storefront with the help of his Korean wife and her family.
Howe and his wife, Gab, were living at home with Gab's family in Staten Island when they decided to buy a store. In Korean culture, living at home with one's family is hardly out of the ordinary—or at least, this is Howe's justification for sleeping in a windowless basement without any semblance of privacy. But despite the significant culture and language gap between himself and his in-laws (and housemates), Howe maintains an upbeat, slightly self-deprecating tone about the living situation. He has a true affection for Gab's family, despite how challenging they can be.
Howe's mother-in-law, Kay, quickly becomes the comedic relief of the store. Howe goes into great detail describing her controlling, efficient, stubborn manner and insistence on making all final decisions related to the store. Howe quickly yields authority to his wife and mother-in-law, largely due to his utter lack of ability behind the register. As he fumbles with cash and argues with underage tobacco-seekers, he can feel disapproving stares from Kay, who steps in before disaster can occur. Their back and forth is aggressive, but Howe's narration of such scenes is humorous rather than bitter.
Once settled in, the store starts doing consistent business—it has regulars, several loyal (if quirky) employees, and is accepted by the neighborhood's old-timers. But it never really becomes a profitable venture for the family. Relationships are tested, health deteriorates, bank accounts go dry, and ultimately other career pursuits pull Howe and Gab away from the store. Howe had maintained his job as an editor, which provides supplemental income but also a host of internal crises.
I found myself seeking a bit more of the Korean perspective on this "Korean deli" experience—but that, I suppose, is another book. What Howe provides is a chuckle-inducing, compassionate look at the small business owner's experience. He brings us into his home, his neighborhood of characters, and a world that is foreign to most of us who only patronize such shops. I appreciated his insight into the back room operations of convenience stores—not only the economic side, but also the unfortunate and sticky legal situations facing all such small business owners. By the end of My Korean Deli, I was rooting for Howe; not for his deli, which the family shuttered several years ago. But I was inspired by his persistent optimism, and belief in the strength of the bonds of family and community to overcome hardship—and to face the harsh realities of business operation in New York City.
About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.