The second book about retail/service last week was Ben Ryder Howe's My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store.
This one got a lot of pre-publication buzz, and a lot of good reviews, so I thought, hey, why not? Sounds good. A guy (who happens to be an editor at the Paris Review) agrees to help purchase a convenience store with his wife in New York City that they can give to her hard-working Korean parents, in order to "pay them back" for all the sacrifices they made immigrating to America. They'll help work in the store, too, the whole family will make it a success, they'll get their investment back, and they'll move out of his wife's parents' house and start a family of their own.
SPOILER ALERT: This is not how things work out.
Instead, the convenience store/deli nearly does kill them, starting with Howe's redoubtable mother-in-law. Howe weaves a tale of mishaps and bad luck, and if the stress from running a convenience store in Brooklyn (early on his mother-in-law Kay gives up the dream of owning a fancier deli, with a cash-cow lunchtime buffet steam table, in Manhattan*) isn't bad enough, he also witnesses the end of an era at The Paris Review as he and his colleagues try valiantly to make it more "professional" without stepping on George Plimpton's toes (and especially so in his absence, after his death).
And he does weave a fairly good tale. I started it at night, and then stayed up a bit later than usual to read it (fun in itself, as it's been a while since I've found something, anything, I really wanted to KEEP reading) and ended up blowing through 250 pages, so it's an easy read. And I really felt for him, as I can't imagine trying to serve the types of people he describes serving. It was, in its own way, an interesting look at a type of store I've (mercifully) never had to work in.
But this was another nonfiction book in which topics were raised and then never resolved. There is the incident, for example, where, when the deli/store is already struggling, Howe is seduced by a fancy groceries catalog into buying more than a thousand dollars' worth of upscale foodstuffs. There's some reference to his wife asking him if he placed an order that large, but that's pretty much all that's ever said about it. Now, me, when I hear about $1500 in fancy groceries bought for a convenience store which is mainly known for its sale of beers and lottery tickets, I kind of want to know what happened to those groceries. Did they sell? How fancy were they? Did his wife and mother-in-law ever chew him out for spending so much money when they were already hard up?
At another point the family is faced with losing their license to sell cigarettes (for one violation for selling cigarettes to someone underage), so they voluntarily stop selling them. I ask you: what kind of convenience store owner thinks they're going to be able to keep the business going without selling cigarettes?
So there you have it: two books on retail/service, and neither of them fantastic reads. I'll have to give up on the subject for a while and wait for something better to come along.
*Howe's writing about the steam table and his mother-in-law is some of the most fun writing in the whole book, and it comes on pages 3-4: "My mother-in-law, Kay, the Mike Tyson of Korean grandmothers, wants a deli with a steam table, one of those stainless steel, cafeteria-style salad bars that heat the food to just below the temperature that kills bacteria--the zone in which bacteria thrive. She wants to serve food that is either sticky and sweet, or too salty, or somehow all of the above, and that roasts in the dusty air of New York City all day, while roiling crowds examine it at close distance--pushing it around, sampling it, breathing on it. Kay's reason for wanting a deli of this kind is that steam tables bring in a lot of money..." What's really sad is how much that paragraph makes me want to take another trip to New York City.