The Grind of Running A Deli With In-Laws

Ben Howe's memoir, My Korean Deli, reveals the backbreaking but humorous experience of maintaining a convenience store with his wife's Korean immigrant family. He lived with a tough mother-in-law who served as his boss, and kept a job with The Paris Review. Host Michel Martin speaks with Howe about straddling two jobs and two cultures.

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MICHEL MARTIN: Now, if you've been to most American cities, then you probably know the kind of convenience store often found in the city, corner grocery, sometimes with a deli, sometimes with a steam table, many of them owned by Korean immigrants. Well, once upon a time, an Anglo man found himself on what he called an accidental voyage helping to run a Korean grocery and deli. Ben Ryder Howe did it his wife, the daughter of Korean immigrants and her family.

Ryder Howe is a former editor at the Paris Review, and he didn't just work with his in-laws, he and his wife wound up actually living in his mother-in-law's basement. He writes about it all in a memoir titled 'My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store." And Ben Ryder Howe joins us now from our bureau in New York. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

BEN RYDER HOWE: Nice to be here.

MARTIN: So how did this all start?

HOWE: In 2002, my wife and I were living in Brooklyn and the lease on our apartment ran out, so we decided to move into my mother-in-law's house for a few months while we house hunted. We saved up a little money and my wife, who was turning 30, she decided that instead of getting an apartment or house right away, we were going to use the money that we had saved up to buy a convenience store for her mother.

The plan was that once the store was on its feet and making money, that it would pay us back and we would go back to our original plan which was to get a house or an apartment.

MARTIN: Now let me just sort of set the table here. You were working at the Paris Review, which is for many people, you know, the dream job of dream jobs, if you are in the literary world. Your wife is not exactly a slacker. She had a Masters degree and a law degree. But somehow or another she woke up on her - what, is it 30th birthday with this just gnawing sense of inadequacy. What was that about?

HOWE: Well, I mean at times I feel like the hardest thing is to be the child of an immigrant because it is an impossible example to live up to, the sacrifices that they make and the hurdles that they overcome. If you are the kind of person who's inclined to compare yourself to your parents, there's not much you can do, short of immigrating yourself, that is going to measure up.

MARTIN: Well, you talk about this. You write about this in the book. You say, Gab got the idea on her 30th per day. When Gab's mom Kay was 30, she had already raised kids alone, run her own bakery business, was about to immigrate to an unknown country, America. Gab too was accomplished I.E., she got a Masters and a law degree, had a blooming law job, but she was unsatisfied until she could sacrifice something too.

Now when she presented this idea, I'm just trying to think about what the conversation would be in my household if I said to my husband, you know, honey...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What I think we should do is take all of our savings, which we've been diligently saving by living in my mother's basement, hand it over so she can buy a deli. I'm just trying to figure out, I don't even want to think about what that conversation would be like.

(Soundbite of laughter) So I want to know, what did you say?

HOWE: There really was no saying no. She admits this about herself that she is one of those people that when she has an idea in her head she doesn't give up on it. And it was really not until we started looking at the stores and we realized just what a life-changing decision it might turn out to be and how would go into it...

MARTIN: Well, there's actually two stories, maybe more than two, but there are two main stories. One was just the whole living with your wife's family and kind of giving yourself over to their lives, and the other was running the store. I did want to just talk a little bit about living with, you know, your wife's family where, I'll just read a little bit.

Some of them stayed with us for months, squeezing three at a time into beds made for one. Some of them were new immigrants who spoke no English at all. But it didn't matter in Kay's house because the television was forever playing Korean soap operas and the radio was constantly tuned to Korean talk radio, and the refrigerator was filled with bean sprout soup, sea slugs and fermented cabbage.

I was the only one from whom it mattered because I did not eat Korean food and could not speak a word of Korean. Now that's an experience I think other people from, you know, backgrounds like people moving North from the South would crash a thrill to. That's a part of the American story. But it is unusual for middle-class people like yourself to - well, maybe I should even amend that to say these difficult economic times may be more people find themselves doubling up.

But of the two experiences, you know, sharing the living quarters and actually doing the deli, which was the hardest?

HOWE: Sharing the living quarters. It really was an adjustment. I grew up in a household where privacy was valued. My wife had grown up in a house where people would knock on the door and say hey, I'm your cousin. I'm here. Can I crash on your couch for a few months? And oh, the couch is already taken, all right, I'll take the bathtub and your lives become intertwined.

You share food, cars, clothes, vacations, doctors, everything. And it's no surprise that families like this are good at running businesses because you have all kinds of surplus labor. We had seven full-grown adults at times living in a house that was really meant for a family of three and a goldfish. I mean it was, once you've become accustomed to it, living in a family, a multigenerational and multi-cultural family can be very rewarding, especially once you have children and you have a shared pursuit like a business. It gives you a really strong sense of purpose.

MARTIN: A lot of people have an image of what these stores are and they can, you just look at and you see that folks are there 12 hours a day, 14 hours a day. And you say to yourself, gee, that looks like hard work. But you're saying it's actually even harder than it looks. You talk about this. You say that it's not like, you know, the margin for error is small. It's not like you can close the store for a few days and rethink your approach. If you close for a few days that's it, your supplier cuts you off, you can't pay your rent. That's the thrill of shop-keeping, but it also makes it so unhealthy. We were constantly running into other shopkeepers who had heart attacks at younger ages.

It's just like yeah, he died at 53 of a heart attack. That must've been a little hard to take.

HOWE: It is. It was alarming. You know, the more time we spent the more time I spent in the business and got to learn about it, the more people I saw that it was taking decades off their life. And when you run a store you constantly have the kinds of events that can trigger a heart attack, like a problem customer or a surprise inspection by a city inspector. These kinds of things can really, really add up.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Ben Ryder Howe about his new memoir, 'My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store." The book is exactly what it sounds like. Ben Ryder Howe helped his Korean-American wife and her parents run the convenience store that they help them buy.

Now the part I want to talk about is your other life. as I mentioned, you were working at the Paris Review, which was founded by George Plimpton, was run out of the basement of his townhouse and he had a very glamorous New York life. And you talk a little bit about being a little worried about how that part of your life would be viewed, the fact that you were running a deli.

I don't know if I'm characterizing it accurately, but you're very honest and also very elegant about it in the book. But would you talk about it?

HOWE: Sure.

MARTIN: Just feeling what? Like your yuppie friends would not think that this was such a great idea that....

HOWE: Oh no, my, people were always very supportive and enthusiastic about the store. The double life, it was schizophrenic at times. I mean, you know, it wasn't just that I was going to sell lottery tickets at a Brooklyn deli, and coming there from the richest zip code in the city, it was that the store was about doing things with your hands and, you know, very tangible products and it was a cash business. And to contrast that with the job of producing something as ineffable as art, that was where the schizophrenia came in.

MARTIN: Talk about the racial politics of the black/Korean dynamic too.

HOWE: In Brooklyn in particular, in the early 90s, there was a lot of tension between the African-American community and the Korean-American community. The neighborhood that our store was in had a lot of people moving in who were not natives of the community, who were not locals. And our store had been around for decades. It was the corner store for the people who have lived there for a long time. And they were not happy to see people come in and change things.

We didn't set out to alienate the local community, but it's almost impossible not to in that situation and we made a lot of mistakes. So we spent the rest of our time there trying to undo those and at the same time make a livelihood.

MARTIN: Well, your saving grace though, was Dwayne, right?

HOWE: Our saving grace was Dwayne. Dwayne was the only employee who stayed with us from the previous owner and Dwayne had grown up in the neighborhood. He had gone to the school. He was raised from the nearby projects. And he was somebody who people would come from all over the city to get a sandwich from. When...

MARTIN: And he was a very hard worker. He was such - he was African-American.

HOWE: Yes.

MARTIN: And he was, his work ethic matched that of your mother-in-law, which was something she apparently did not expect to do.

HOWE: Well, she just didn't expect anybody to measure up to her work ethic. And she and Dwayne became very close at the store, and it was a big part of the story for us. But, you know, there was a culture clash there are well. I mean, you know, for Dwayne, what was important about that store was not just that it served food and that people came to get their groceries there; it was, for Dwayne, it had a sort of sacred neighborhood tradition as the corner store.

And for him, the satisfaction of fulfilling that responsibility and the pleasures of being in the store and in a very social place like that, you know, were compensation I think in a way for the hard work that had to go into it and then, you know, it was not an easy job.

MARTIN: What was the best thing about the deli?

HOWE: The best thing for me was working with my mother-in-law. My mother-in-law at the time was my landlord, she was my boss in a way, and we come from completely different backgrounds. She had spent the previous 25 years of her life working either at convenience stores or in sweatshops and the values that tended to define a lot of immigrants and that may be even enhanced by the experience are things like determination, toughness and the lack of self-pity and just a certain attitude.

So for me the best part of the experience was to spend those two years with my wife's family, but especially my mother-in-law and to have those sort of values injected, almost.

MARTIN: Times are kind of tough right now for small businesses in general.

HOWE: Yes.

MARTIN: I think, you know, most people know that. But in your heart of hearts, if things were to change, can you see yourself running a deli again?

HOWE: Absolutely. When we first started I was terrified of that static life behind the counter, maybe forever. But I really came to enjoy that. I mean in a way there's nothing less boring than being a deli owner in New York City. A deli is a great place to meet people who aren't like yourself.

MARTIN: Ben Ryder Howe is the author of the new memoir, 'My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store." It's out in stores now. He was with us from our bureau in New York. Ben, thanks so much for joining us.

HOWE: Thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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