My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store, by Ben Howe, is an entertaining and engaging memoir about his attempt at success in the retail world of lottery tickets and cigarettes. Ben Howe, who is an editor at George Plimpton’s Paris Review, is married to Gab, a successful but burned-out corporate attorney. Howe’s mother-in-law, Kay (whom he describes as the “Mike Tyson of Korean grandmothers”) has experience working in convenience stores. Their plan is to buy the store for Kay to manage, recoup their debts, pay off student loans, and move out of Kay’s basement, where they had been living in order to save the nest egg that is now part of the store investment.
The resulting story is a candid and funny look at how a well-educated New Englander adapts to life centered around a Korean deli in Brooklyn. He openly describes his difficulty with handling money and counting change, his tobacco law violation for selling cigarettes to a minor, and his attempts to diversify the inventory by adding gourmet hot sauce and cookies to the shelves of Ding Dongs and beef jerky.
Ben prefers to analyze, consider, and weigh outcomes. The inertia this produces is the antithesis of the drive for action Ben’s mother-in-law Kay has in abundance. Ben’s description of Kay is both tender and critical. He shares his frustrations with her single-mindedness and unrelenting work ethic, but also explains to the reader Kay’s history, which sheds light on her motivation to work. Choosing a store to buy was the first challenge, as evidenced by one of the aspects of store ownership Ben considered:
There is something that scares me even more than us getting a store in East New York or Brownsville, and that’s the possibility of ending up in a perfectly safe part of the city, on a perfectly okay block, in a decent building even, but in the local loser store. The loser store—every neighborhood has one—is the store in your neighborhood that inexorably fails year after year under different owners, first as a sports memorabilia shop, then as a florist, then as a Pan-Asian bistro or ‘wrapperia.’
But the memoir isn’t just about the deli; Ben spends a good bit of the story telling about his life as an editor for The Paris Review, the whimsical and somewhat amateur way in which the review is produced, and how it helped support his “second life” as a deli owner. He writes about how the deli affected him, what he learned about himself, his wife, and his in-laws, and some of the colorful characters in his life, including Mr. Plimpton and Dwayne, a reliable yet worrisome shift worker at the deli.
My Korean Deli is an enjoyable book, and would be particularly eye-opening for anyone with a thread of entrepreneurial spirit. My Korean Deli was published by Henry Holt and Company in 2010, and is available at all three local Barnes and Noble stores.