Independents Day

It’s easy to find cultural diversity in the Truckee Meadows. All you have to do is look in the markets.

The Wangs are happy to be   considered the best independent market in Reno. They’ll probably hang their award in their new home in Los Angeles.

The Wangs are happy to be considered the best independent market in Reno. They’ll probably hang their award in their new home in Los Angeles.

Photo By D. Brian Burghart

Steve and Judy Wang are calling it quits.

They seem out of sorts as they put new price tags on the remaining merchandise. They’ve owned the 27-year-old Tokyo Market for seven years. The shelves of what was a bustling independent grocery store are mostly empty. Soon, within a few days or a week, the shelves will be denuded.

The “60 percent off” sign in the window tells much of the story. This was perhaps Reno’s most popular independent ethnic market—it won, after all, this year’s RN&R Best of Reno readers’ poll. But the empty parking lot gives quiet testimony to the fact that much of the traffic has left this mall on the corner of Moana and Kietzke and flown to what some consider the new center of town, near Borders, Old Navy and Gart Sports.

Some of those 60-percent-off items are pretty cool—sake sets, bottles of sweet soy sauce and decorative plates, lots of odds and ends that would never make the shopping list but seem worth a second glance when they’re going for such cut-rate prices.

The Wangs aren’t quitting for lack of business. They’ve had a good run here in Reno, but owning a small market is a lot of work. It’s a seven-days-a-week gig, and they have to drive to San Francisco or Los Angeles once and sometimes twice a week to pick up merchandise. Judy has been wracked with back problems from the constant lifting and bending that come from stocking shelves.

They are moving back to the Los Angeles area. They aren’t really sure what they’re going to do down there—pretty much anything but open a new market.

“We are thinking about motels or maybe apartments,” says Judy. “That’ll be a lot easier. We have two children, and we don’t have enough time to spend with them. We’re doing OK, but we’d rather do something that’s easier for the same money.”

They aren’t selling the market, just closing it, saying that while they’re making enough money to get by, with other recent business closures in the mall, there’s just not enough foot traffic to attract a buyer.

“Nobody else is going to take it,” says Steve. “You can see how empty the shopping center is.”

As the Wangs stamp their price reductions onto their forlorn packages of dried anchovies, other small independent ethnic markets around town are ready to pick up the slack.

The International Market on Grove Street has been a landmark for several years, with hundreds of shelves stocked with inventory from Thailand, China and the Philippines, and it’s a story in itself. The store draws customers from all over the area who are looking for products they’d never find at Albertson’s, Safeway, Raley’s or WinCo.

The Padron family has run the El Mexicano Grocery & Video store for a decade.

Photo By D. Brian Burghart

For those who are going to feel the loss of the Tokyo Market, the Wangs also recommend the smaller stores, like Yim’s Asian Supermarket on Rock Boulevard in Sparks.

When I visit Yim’s, the young Asian woman behind the counter is watching a “Korean drama” (i.e. soap opera) on the television. She’s dressed casually—black slacks, light green sweater and white tennis shoes. Her hair’s in a ponytail.

It’s a bit of a comedy trying to get the boss’s name for a chat. The girl’s best English skills are non-verbal: a shake of the head to denote a lack of understanding. When she’s shown a newspaper to illustrate the idea of a news story, she replies, “Newspaper is free.”

The store is piled high with items many Americans have never seen. Candies with anime faces for logos, gallon jars of kim chi and Korean pears. Many of the items have Asian symbols, indecipherable to people accustomed to a 26-letter alphabet. The freezer section reveals squid, octopus and green-tea ice cream. There are Asian-language videos and CDs, electric rice cookers, roasted seaweed, pressure cookers, chopsticks, pine nuts at $6.99 a pound. In a glass case, there are jewelry and hair scrunchies; a couple steps away is black hair dye.

Eventually, another woman comes from a back room and calls owner Seung Yim. He says business is “awesome,” but not for the reasons that might be guessed.

“I wouldn’t say it’s because of the changing demographics of the area,” he says. “It’s more supply and demand. Interest in Asian cuisine has increased. Sushi, for example, has become very popular, and more people are interested in authentic recipes and ingredients. They cannot find those in big supermarket chains.”

Yim’s has been at 1210 N. Rock Blvd. for two years, although he has had grocery stores in the area since 1988. He says the secret to success in running an independent market is the same as running a giant chain store. “You’ve got to have a good selection of products and good prices,” he says.

Speaking an Asian language probably doesn’t hurt any either, judging from the regular stream of customers coming into the store.

Language and community involvement are key to keeping the El Mexicano Grocery & Video bustling. This store at 2570 Wrondel Way is owned by Alicia and Gabriel Padron. They’ve had the store for 10 years, and when the question of their longevity comes up, Gabriel is quick to talk about a soccer team the store is involved with, Los Leoncitos. It illustrates the attitude the Padrons, and many independent-market owners, have toward their customers and their community.

“We’re in the middle of a Spanish population,” Alicia says. “We know many of our customers from a long time ago. They move away and then come back. Our customers are mostly Hispanic; they come from Mexico, Salvador, Costa Rica, everywhere.”

The market has Spanish-language videos, CDs and cassettes. Many of the products have foreign-language labels, although not as many, percentage-wise, as there are at Yim’s. The store is also smaller, more of a neighborhood market/convenience store than a supermarket. The produce section features peppers and vegetables that don’t often make their way to Anglo tables. There are other things that would be a surprise to find in the larger supermarkets hereabouts: Western hats, tooled leather belts and huaraches.

This market, like the Wangs', is a family affair. The Padrons’ children, Gabriela, 14, and Cesar, 11, seem quite comfortable behind the counter. Cesar, with his father, is on his way to futbol practice.

Gabriel got his start in the market business by selling tortillas out of his truck. Soon, he expanded to include Mexican sodas, spices and peppers. Before long, he was selling so much he had to buy a van. When the store came up for sale, Gabriel and Alicia jumped into the fray.

“We wanted to do something different, to be our own bosses," Alicia says. She brushes a wisp of hair from her forehead and moves to help a customer at the counter. "Now, we’ve been here 10 years."