Next time you stop by your neighborhood convenience store to buy a pint of milk or a lottery ticket, think about the owners and the arduous journey they took to have the privilege of selling you an overpriced sleeve of Oreo cookies. My Korean Deli is the story of Ben Howe, a senior editor of The Paris Review, who joins his wife and Korean in-laws in opening a convenience store in Brooklyn.
It’s hard not to sympathize with Howe – despite his wife being an accomplished attorney, he still finds opening a bodega a series of calamities. It looks like How’s life becomes the proverbial losing board game: for every step forward, he takes two steps back. Putting together a family business has its built-in problems, but opening a convenience store in Brooklyn has Howe dealing with neighborhood skirmishes, the locals’ hostility towards gentrification, local ordinances and his ever-increasing tension with his wife and her family.
While working behind the cash register of his deli, Howe also holds down a job with The Paris Review. George Plimpton has a supporting role in the book – and Howe writes him delightfully. Plimpton’s portrayed as intelligent, witty, capricious, mercurial – it’s a lovely tribute to the late publishing icon. While funny, the episodes of The Paris Review also portray the literary magazine’s waning influence, casting a poignant pall.
Aside from Howe and Plimpton, My Korean Deli is populated with other great characters – most notably Dwayne – the employee Howe inherited from his deli’s owner. Dwayne’s an interesting figure with a foot in two different worlds: Howe’s and his own. At couple times in the book, Howe falls into the trap of making Dwayne into the magical negro, but he does give the man a complex back story that elevates him from a two-dimensional cutout to a real person. At times, Dwayne is a hero, but he still has demons that tail him throughout the book.
Aside from Dwayne, Howe also pays attention to his mother-in-law, Kay. Self-sacrificing, ambitious and impatient, Kay and Howe have a particularly prickly and heated relationship. Despite her short temper and manipulation, Howe writes her with affection and admiration. He spends a lot of time with Kay and though the two don’t ever share a “moment” it’s a great interplay between two generations with markedly different perspectives – the struggling immigrant versus the indulged Wasp.
Like the contrast between Howe and Kay, there are lots of parallels in My Korean Deli. Neighborhoods clash, racial differences emerge, class and economic hierarchies come into play, and change is often not welcome. Some of the tension comes from Howe’s fantasy of what the deli should be, and the reality. He’s continuously trying to recast his deli as a gourmet delicacy shop and is frustrated that Doritos and Old English sell better than fois gras and Pinot.
It’s obvious from Howe’s work that opening a deli is hard and thankless work. He doesn’t sugar coat anything – in fact, he’s embraced the arduous struggles he and his family go through. Still, this isn’t a dour read – it’s funny, often laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a memorable tome and if anything it gives me a tiny bit more perspective when I walk into a 7-11.
Click here to buy My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store on amazon.com.