Rethinking the Corner Store

A neighborhood market says no to alcohol and yes to fresh produce.

Last month, North Oakland’s A & Sons Market got a makeover. Sharp, hunter-green awnings and a colorful building wrap with inviting pictures of fresh foods replaced the generic white rectangle that had hung limply from the building. For years the old sign had said “Liquor, Groceries,” but in recent months the word “liquor” had been painted over.

The market’s new facade contrasts with the area’s grimy liquor stores like a daisy sprouting in a weedy lot. The decor is just the latest sign of evolution at A & Sons, which has been owned and operated for 32 years by Yemeni immigrant Mohamed Algarmi and his wife and four sons, who live next door.

Eldest son Menir Algarmi said the new signs were chosen because his father wanted the store’s outside to tell customers what it had inside. The store’s focus is certainly different than that of most other Oakland corner stores. An open cooler near the front door holds neatly wrapped fruits and vegetables, including cherries, oranges, and lettuce. Two rows of shelving hold a variety of boxed, bottled, and canned food, while a large assortment of cleaning supplies lines the back wall. There’s always been a deli counter, but today it’s stocked with many foods made in the store. In addition to sandwiches made to order and the standard sides, it features falafel and hummus. “You can make a whole meal out of this store,” Menir said.

There’s simmering hostility in Oakland to corner stores like A & Sons Market. They’re demonized and blamed for social ills from alcoholism and drug dealing to litter and noise. After a gang of suited and bow-tied thugs connected to Your Black Muslim Bakery used tire irons to smash up two West Oakland liquor stores in November 2005, the city council decided to crack down — on the stores. If neighbors complained, city lawyers would make a store’s owner sign a compliance plan, and shut it down if the plan wasn’t followed.

What role should such stores play in their neighborhoods? Do they have a responsibility to provide the components of a healthy diet? No one complains that 7-Eleven doesn’t sell vegetables, but corner stores are held to a different standard. Activists want to make them responsible for changing the dietary habits of their customers. They’d like to see them distributing locally grown, organic food.

Last year, as part of the national Healthy Corner Stores Network, Alameda County worked with 32 corner-store merchants to train them in how to be certified as Women, Infants and Children Support vendors. Organizers say such stores can increase their business by selling approved foods to families with vouchers. Yet, while several stores were certified by the program, things in Oakland didn’t seem to change much. “If the neighborhood isn’t used to going to a venue to buy their produce, they don’t even see that it’s there,” said Linda Franklin, director of Alameda County’s program. “It may be better to make people aware of shops that already sell fruits and vegetables, rather than try to convert a liquor store into a food store.”

Although the Algarmis were not aware of the program, their market’s revitalized exterior was the result of Mohamed’s own desire to increase awareness of his offerings. Like many small merchants, the Algarmis struggle to find the balance between surviving and upgrading. Menir said most shopkeepers do the math on store improvements and say, “I don’t want to spend the money.” Such investments are particularly tough to justify when cash-strapped cities keep piling on new taxes and fees. A & Sons managed to absorb Oakland’s recent litter tax, but now it’s looking at having to pay for a license to sell cigarettes.

For the most part, the Algarmis’ changes have been pragmatic, rather than ideological. The store first opened in the pre-supermarket 1920s, so it’s always carried a wider assortment of food than some of its neighbors. And the June 2007 decision to stop selling alcohol came after the store’s license was revoked for failing to check a customer’s ID. During the ten-day suspension, the family decided that the incremental sales revenues weren’t worth the hassle — not only from customers, but also from the license board and the city. “I had been thinking about doing this anyway,” Mohamed said. “I thank God that he gave me the encouragement to stop selling liquor.”

And yet, the family has long set a different standard for its store. When it was time to replace the market’s shelving eight years ago, they chose the kind of wire shelves used by Andronico’s because they’re neater and cleaner. And instead of the standard beer and lottery banners, the store’s interior is decorated with original oil paintings by Walid Algarmi, another son.

Operating on minuscule margins, the Algarmis must control their costs — and that means limiting perishables. So while A & Sons offers a selection of organic dry goods and conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, Menir said “the demand for organics is not there yet.” Likewise, while one shelf offers fresh orange juice, several shelves feature Sunny D, the high-fructose beverage that’s only 5 percent juice. The Algarmis tested Odwalla, the pricey juice blends, but ended up selling them off at cost or drinking them before they went bad.

Because the one constant at A & Sons is that customers keep voting with their wallets. The poorer ones can’t see spending $3 for a small bottle of juice, while the richer ones stop in for candy and then drive out of the neighborhood for major shopping expeditions. But if customers ever do start voting for more veggies, A & Sons is ready to meet the demand.

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