People & Places: Best Midtown institution
The corner store
For the longest time, I thought the clerk at my corner store was named Bobby. He’s a friendly guy, though stern with drunks and troublemakers, which makes the Shopper’s Market at 14th and G seem like a very safe place, indeed. He usually keeps one eye on a small television at the cash register—he’s a soccer junkie—in the afternoons when I stop by for the necessary things we never have enough of: bread, cat litter, milk. And on Friday, when it’s time to buy ice cream, he’ll call out before I’ve even reached the freezer, “You’re in luck! We’ve got Phish Food today!”
Turns out, the name I heard—"Bobby"—was really “Bhabi,” a nickname bestowed upon him by a customer. His cousin, Jagait Bhabal, owns the store, and like most of the corner stores in Sacramento, it’s got a neighborhood full of devotees. I mentioned it to one of my neighbors, and his response was, “Oh, yeah. I love that place. They’ve got Ben & Jerry’s.”
Yeah. Mmm … Phish Food.
Since the Albertson’s supermarket at 23rd and F streets closed more than a year ago, the north section of the grid has been able to rely on a small network of corner stores for basic supplies. These corner stores—called “bodegas” in New York City and “convenience stores” in the middle part of the country—are a fixture in downtown and Midtown Sacramento. Situated throughout the grid (usually on, you guessed it, a corner) and within walking distance of a large chunk of housing, they’ve got a number of things in common.
Most of them are owned and operated by small business people—often a family affair, with a cluster of relatives pitching in to keep the business open—rather than chain operations. They all sell the basics: bread, milk, canned goods, cheese, eggs, flour and sugar. And they sell beer, wine, soda, chips, cookies and candy—the junk we can’t seem to get by without. Cigarettes. Aspirin. Lottery tickets.
Then there’s the weird shit. Incense. Hats. Playing cards.
What do we do when the game’s about to start and we’re out of pork rinds? When the cat’s box is unbearable and we need litter? When we’re in the middle of making burritos and discover we’ve used the last can of refried beans?
On a recent Sunday, I chatted with owner Bhabal at the Shopper’s Market. He’d stopped in to check on another of his cousins, a shy young woman who had the afternoon shift. “I bought this store in December of 2004,” Bhabal said. “I have another store on Folsom Boulevard.”
Bhabal estimated “probably about 900 people come in the store in a regular day. More on some days” And, he notes, “We sell a lot of beer and snacks when there’s a football game on television, or when the Kings are playing well.”
Bhabal likes the Midtown area. “It’s a nice neighborhood,” he said. “Lots of family people.”
Several blocks down G Street at 19th, another corner store has its share of devotees. At the Save Rite Market, surprisingly wide, low aisles give an open feel to the small store. On a Sunday, the clerks, Khin and his wife, were too busy behind the counter to talk much. A bell alerted them to every entrance and exit—the sort of doorbell that the corner stores have in common, allowing clerks to hear customers enter when they’re stocking shelves. This afternoon, the electronic chime was going nonstop.
The Save Rite Market has been under their management for “five or six years,” Khin said. “My daughter owns the store. We sell everything you see here—groceries, diapers, milk, cereal. Things people need.”
A Save Rite customer who’s lived in the neighborhood for eight years took a minute to praise Khin’s management. “When they took over, they gutted the place, repainted it, and then they spent some time asking what the neighborhood wanted,” Karla, a young blonde, said. She was on her way out the door with a paper bag containing soda, toilet paper and bread.
“When one of the neighbors had a baby, they asked what kind of diapers she wanted them to stock, and what kind of baby food.” Karla’s also pleased that they keep the prices down. “They keep the stuff on hand that we need,” she said. “The prices are comparable to Safeway and it’s a lot closer.”
One block over and one block up, things are a bit quieter for Bal Virnder. A clerk at the Bonfare Market at 20th and H streets, he said the best thing about the job is the customers. He’s worked at the Bonfare for four months now. “Most of the customers are quite nice,” he said, “and they make the day go quickly. They always have something to say about what’s going on.”And even on a Sunday, there’s a lot going on. Unlike many of the stores, the Bonfare sells gasoline. “We don’t sell that much gas,” Virnder said. “It’s mostly snacks and drinks.”
Here, too, the door chime rang incessantly. Even on Sunday, everybody needs to eat and drink.