By Sushmita Mazumdar
Arlington, Virginia — famous for the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery — is a diverse and inclusive urban area 26 square miles big, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. With a highly educated population — a quarter of who speak a language other than English at home — 150 parks, 86 miles of trails, 630 restaurants and 35 public schools, Arlington also boasts one of the largest free events on the East Coast — the county fair.
I volunteered at the "Tell Arlington's Story" booth at the county fair this past summer. Librarians, elected officials and descendants of historic figures stopped by to tell their stories. Children told stories of schools, favorite playgrounds and even the mosquitoes.
But as I listened to the stories I wondered where were more of the people I met every day — where I got my coffee, filled gas, used the ATM or got a quick bag of groceries? Where was the blue-collar working man and woman? Probably working. So I went to them to get their stories.
Dwarakanath Gabbireddy's grandfather was a grocer in Hyderabad, India. But Dwarak, a mechanical engineer, started a business selling tires and tubes to India's biggest tire manufacturers. When he arrived in the United States, however, he started working for retailer Hecht's (now Macy's) and then was offered a job by a man in his neighborhood managing two Indian grocery stores. He saw potential for himself and soon opened his own store: India A-1 Grocery on Lee Highway in North Arlington.
"We have been here 22 years now, probably the oldest Indian grocery store in Virginia," Dwarak said as he smiled. But his customers are from all over. "Forty percent of our customers are American. Some come with their cookbooks and want to try cooking Indian food. Often, we simplify the recipes for them," he said. "Many Chinese and Vietnamese clients buy henna and our African clients like our Ayurvedic and coconut hair oils."
During my visit, we stopped at the pickles and heat-and-serve food shelf. "One of my old clients teaches cooking and sends her students here to buy the ingredients," he told me, as his cashier hands my children free mango juice as he always does when we visit.
Since 2005 Dwarak has wanted to combine a grocery store and a restaurant. "In 2008 I opened an American restaurant in Herndon. Then, a year ago, the landlord here told me the shop next door was available so I opened the restaurant, Minerva Express." Compared to 2007, sales are bad, he admitted, and yet 2011 has been better than 2010. "I only worry once in a while about bills, but for the customers things are different. Their buying power has changed€¦before they bought two to three boxes of sweets, now they just skip it."
Today, Dwarak looks forward to joining Arlington County's Go Green policies in an effort to stay current on best practices in sustainability. But at the same time, he laments the limited parking spots in his area. He would like customers to buy more than they can walk home with, but in this urban landscape space is often scarce.
"English sounds different here than in Korea," Yong Yoo laughed. "A man asked for Marlboro Lights once and I didn't understand him. He pointed, I read the word, and he repeated it. Then I understood." He patted a thick brown book by the register. "I still use my dictionary often, but my customers are very helpful."
Yoo owns Shirlington Market in South Arlington. He came to the United States with a degree in architecture in 1995 from Incheon, Korea, where he had owned a furniture business. His sister was already in Maryland running a convenience store and she suggested he start one too.
"In business, a lot is the same whether you are in Korea or the U.S.," Yoo said. But five years ago business slowed down. "Then the Harris Teeter opened," he said of the grocery store in a new development nearby. "For 14 years mine was the only store residents here could walk to. Now they walk to the large retail chain. I buy milk at $4.30 a gallon and sell it at $4.89. My profit is small. But how can I compete when [the grocer can] buy in bulk, have a sale and milk is $3.00?"
I looked around and saw hangers, baseball hats, birthday cards and wrapping paper. "You also take in dry cleaning?" I asked. "Yes," he said. "When a new person moves into the building they are surprised to find everything in one store."
I remembered how my family and I stocked up for Hurricane Irene. I asked him how it was for him. "They were predicting it for a week so people planned ahead," he answered. "But when the 2010 snowstorm hit, no one could leave the building. The milk, water and bread were sold out. I was stuck here too — I slept here."
"Five years ago we had employees," Yoo said, the smile vanishing. "Now my wife works here every morning and I work every day until closing. We have no time for anything else — can't be with our son, no vacations." "Does your son help?" I asked. "He just started at George Mason University," was Yoo's answer, and the smile was back.
"Is he going to run this place when you retire?" I inquired. "Oh no, no! I told him to get a job. A good job with weekends off and paid vacations," he laughed, but then two men came in to buy drinks and Yoo turned away. They spoke in Spanish and Yoo seemed to understand.
Almaz Dama's father owned a bakery and foodservice business in Ethiopia that catered to the country's Air Force. She and her sister Kalam came to the United States 35 years ago to attend Howard University in Washington D.C. "I studied nutrition and science," she said, "but Dama's is a family business so we all joined in. My sister started the market 12 years ago."
Dama Market and Deli is a couple blocks from Arlington's Air Force Memorial. Sandwiched between the bakery and the restaurant, it has spices, bags of tef (used to make the flatbread called injera) and barley, books, CDs and DVDs. Almaz told me their customers are mostly Ethiopian and here they can get whatever they need.
The phone rings and Almaz excused herself as her brother Hailu joined me. "It is all about what our customers want," he said. "A business is like your child — you watch every step and pay attention. If you see it is going in a direction you don't want, you understand it and with patience you make it right."
"What are the good and the bad things about owning this business?" I asked him. "The good is that we have so many friends and people we know and that carries us through even this bad economy," he answered.
"Customers become like family. The lessons you can take from their life enrich your own — you turn wiser, experienced and become an asset to the community."
But it is hard work and sometimes, an 18-hour day. "I remember one night at 10 pm when I was locking up, the phone rang. 'How can I help you?' I answered," Hailu said, "and the man on the line said I could save his job. He was an MC at a wedding and the 400 guests, the bride and the groom didn't know that the cake wasn't coming, he said So I picked up a cake I had to deliver the next day and reached that wedding at 11 pm," he smiles.
"We pulled it off!" Over the years the community has grown into families and businesses and has become a part of mainstream America, he observed. So the recession hit them too. "My customers lost houses, businesses and jobs. Many are cab drivers. But they still come to our store." "Like bringing up a child — you have to pay attention at every stage," Hailu smiled. "We€™ve all seen big businesses die out and small stores can vanish overnight."
"If I stop moving, I stop thriving," said Nick Roman, owner of Miguel's Q Mart at the Western end of Columbia Pike in Arlington. "My dad's name was Mohammed and he named his store Mike's (in Manassas, Virginia) because his customers in the 1980s were American. I opened a Latino store in Arlington, so I called it Miguel's," he explained.
"You learned everything from dad?" I asked. That was where he started, Roman told me. "He couldn't pay me but said I could run the grill and whatever I made would be mine."
Initially, it wasn't successful. "Everyone who came was in a hurry," Roman remembered, and so they bypassed the food offerings. One afternoon at the local mall, he saw the Chinese restaurant guys handing out samples. "And a light bulb went on!"
Nick went from five to 25 orders a day when he started giving samples of his grilled food to customers waiting in line to check out. "Eventually, when dad didn't have the energy to run his store in Alexandria, I bought it from him," he said.
But you have to know your customers, Roman said. "I let them have credit on food. I got to know the families so kids could come to the store and take things home. We had lower prices. We knew our neighbors and the bigger stores didn't."
Years later, Roman opened Miguel's. "In 2005, the economy was strong and we were fortunate. We knew we had to give back to the community," he said. Roman helped build playgrounds, sponsored kids to attend summer camp, and his wife donated clothes and food for the customers.
"Then the recession hit and the walls started closing in," Roman shared with me. With it came competition. "It is difficult to compete...Everyone's undercutting everyone because all are struggling. It's good for the customer but there's no way out for the businesses."
Roman sold Mike's in May 2011 and now owns two convenience stores in another part of Arlington. But for various reasons many Latinos have left the neighborhood. "So I added an American section," he told me. "It's an opportunity for me to take on new challenges. I have to stay in the dance."
I looked at the avocados on the counter and I knew that more Arlington residents would appreciate such a healthy offering these days. If you don't learn what's good for you and go with it, you will stop thriving.
Sushmita Mazumdar is an Arlington, VA-based book artist and writer. She encourages the sharing of memories by adults as well as children, and teaches art education programs facilitating multicultural understanding.