Market bids adieu

Chapmantown mini-grocery store closing after 35 years of operation

Laurel Market owner Lola Wong is closing the store after 35 years in Chapmantown.

Laurel Market owner Lola Wong is closing the store after 35 years in Chapmantown.

PHOTO by Vic cantu

For more than three decades, the Laurel Market convenience store has sold groceries, including fresh meat, dairy, beer and wine, to residents of the Chapmantown area. On Dec. 31, after 35 years, the store at 1345 Laurel St. will close its doors for the last time because owner Lola Wong is retiring.

“I feel lucky to have done this for 35 years,” she said. “I’m happy to have been successful.”

Wong, who said the building is about 120 years old, bought it in 1978 with her husband Hoi, who died two years later of cancer. For the last 33 years, she has run the store by herself, working seven days a week, 12 hours a day. For the first 20 years, she didn’t take Christmas or Thanksgiving off.

“It’s crazy and a lot of work, but I don’t do this just to make money,” she said. “I also do it for people who don’t have cars, including seniors who don’t have any transportation.”

Wong said she looks forward to spending time with her granddaughters and that she may turn the store into apartments or sell it.

Her plan is to run the store through Friday, Dec. 20, take a vacation, and then come back to work for the final two days of December.

Asked why she needed to come back for those final two days of 2013, she explained: “I don’t want to do things halfway. Lola is really stubborn. It’s the American way to finish up what we start.”

Wong grew up in Hong Kong, then moved to the United States with her parents and grandparents. She said she came across the store by coincidence. Living in Yuba City, she commuted to Chico State, where she graduated with a degree in accounting in 1974.

“My first year at college was the first year they called it a university,” she said. “Before then, it was called ‘Chico State College.’”

She had two brothers who owned grocery stores; after her graduation, she and her husband moved to Chico intent on opening a store of their own. Upon arrival, she recalled, they ate lunch at Jack’s Family Restaurant on Main Street and then went for a walk. They asked a random man if he knew of a store for sale. The man happened to be a real-estate agent; he told them that Laurel Market was up for sale. The Wongs not only bought the store, but also purchased a home from the same agent as well.

“People call it Laurel Street Grocery, Laurel Street Market or Laurel Market, but they all come to the same place,” Wong said, laughing.

She said that over the years she’s seen her customer base change.

“I’ve been here a long 35 years and watched a lot of people grow up,” Wong explained. “Now I watch their kids grow up.”

But not all the changes have been good.

“Thirty-five years ago life was a lot easier; now life is tougher,” she said. “The economy makes people change.”

During a recent visit to the store, one customer of seven years expressed his gratitude that Wong had been so consistent. “For her to keep doing this so long is way impossible,” he said. “My best wishes go out to her.”

When she told another customer that he was buying her last 12-pack of Sierra Nevada beer, he said, “I really appreciate you.”

She responded by smiling and saying, “I appreciate you.

Wong said customers don’t want to see her close because her store is so convenient. The only other market in Chapmantown north of 20th Street was Chinca’s, which closed several years ago.

“One customer said I should not retire until I am 80,” she said, “but I said I’m not going to wait that long. Time to go back to a normal life. No more grocery store for me.”

Another customer said she is happy for Wong and her decision to close.

“It’s a good store with almost anything you need, but at least she’s retiring to spend more time with her family,” the woman said.

Overall, Wong said she feels a great sense of liberation in retiring.

“Do I feel a big relief?” she asked rhetorically. “You may say it again.”