It's early afternoon and a customer rushes into Yousif Jaffary's Portland, Oregon store, Park Avenue Market. The girl is frazzled and requests Saran Wrap, which Yousif doesn't carry. "I have tin foil," he offers, and she insists she needs plastic wrap for a project. "I keep some for my store, hold on." Yousif darts to a backroom, returns with a humongous Saran Wrap container, and pulls off several long sheets, handing them to her free of charge.
Saran Wrap aside, there's a whole lot that Yousif does carry in his little market, located on the corner of the Park Blocks, a tree-lined neighborhood that's home to Portland State University. From the outside, his market doesn't seem different from the usual 7-11 or Plaid Pantry. And he does carry some of the regular convenience store grabs like chips and beer. But about a year ago, Yousif noticed a different need in the area.
Portland State houses more than 2,000 foreign exchange students, and a significant majority of them are of Arabic descent. Yousif, who is Kurdish, often gets mistaken for Saudi Arabian, especially because his second language is Arabic. "Students were requesting things from their homes that they couldn't seem to find anywhere close by, like labne (a strained yogurt), yellow label tea, spices and pita breads," he says. Starting there, Yousif's store has quickly become a sanctuary where these students can find pieces of home.
Today, the shelves are lined with Persian, Indian and Arabic spices. There are bags of canary-colored turmeric powder, fragrant cumin seeds, and glass jars filled with emerald chutneys. In the back of the store are towers of rice cookers and teapots; in the fridges are labnes, pillowy flatbreads, and kosher meats. Turn the corner and you'll find a home cook's dream: several varieties of chickpeas, big thick jars of date syrup, bottles of rosewater, masses of hard-to-find Asian packaged noodles. In the front of the store, boxes of baklava taunt you next to European and British candies like Kinder and Nutella. It's all distant from the Snickers bars and Gatorades you might have been expecting.
"You can find these kinds of things in Portland, but they're all out in the suburbs," he says. "When you're a student and you don't have any form of transportation, it becomes too much of a hassle to get out there. They appreciate having all of this nearby now."
At the end of our interview, two elderly women pop in. "Yousif, this is my friend I was telling you about. She wants to rent over here!"
Yousif digs in his cash register and retrieves a business card. "You call this woman, she's great; she's a magic woman!" he tells them. "She'll find you what you need!" The two women leave, beaming.
Park Avenue Market1503 SW Park Ave Portland, OR 97201 (map) 212-614-0473
About the author: Kat Vetrano currently lives in Portland, Oregon where she's eating her way through food carts, farmers markets and pho joints. Follow her on Twitter @kat707 .