Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Book Review: My Korean Deli by Ben Ryder Howe

Ben's wife Gab feels indebted to her parents for their sacrifices, especially her mother who gave up a successful bakery in Korea to immigrate to America, and she thinks they should buy her mother a business - specifically a deli - to repay her. But being a young couple in their early 30s, they don't have the kind of money to just purchase a business for her outright without putting in a lot of sweat labor themselves. Which is how Ben (and Gab and Kay) become deli owner-managers.

In his day job, Ben is an editor for The Paris Review, run by the famous dilettante, George Plimpton, who conveniently doesn't care much if his employees show up or not, so Ben works the night shift at the deli while Gab and Kay cover the day (Gab, a lawyer also does the books and financials and legal issues). They keep on an interesting employee from the previous owner, Dwayne, who has a knack for knowing when the NYC cops are running a sting to be sure you're not selling alcohol to minors, that sort of thing. Otherwise they have trouble hiring good employees so they really have to do all of the work.

Personally, I related to this book even more because it took place during the years I lived in New York, from immediately after September 11, 2001, through the terrible snowstorms that next winter and the blackout the summer after that (Ben walked from the Upper East Side to Brooklyn to make sure the deli was okay, to find Gab and Kay selling everything in the store hand over fist.) Also because I believe - like Ben says at the end - that everyone should do their time behind a cash register. It's truly amazing when you're out with the general public each day, to see how incredibly crazy people can be (one day Ben had not one but TWO people come into the deli and strip naked.)

The challenges of just trying to break even - forget making a profit - and not run afoul of the government (I remember the crackdown on street vendors that he mentions) or the locals or the crazies are very compelling. Ben writes smoothly and with humor. He sees the ridiculousness in their situation and is very open about it. One unexpected part of the book was that Ben tries to understand his in laws, even doing some research about Korea. Kay's generation has had a very unusual experience since Korea went from a more or less medieval country to being more technologically advanced that America, in the course of her lifetime. Her work ethic is astonishing, the lack of boundaries in their house (oh yeah, Gab and Ben are living in Kay and Edward's basement in Staten Island) is unusual, and the resourcefulness is impressive. But in the end, I don't think I could have done it. I very much enjoyed watching it from outside, but running a deli is not for the faint of heart.

The day after I finished this book I went into a gas station store to buy a water and a candy bar, and I definitely took note of the placement of the aisles, the stocking area behind the coolers, the lotto machines, and I looked the cashier in the face for the first time perhaps. It was a noble experiment they undertook. And you'll have to read it to find out if it was successful or not.

I bought this book at a Borders GOOB sale.


Kristen said...

I have been wanting to read this book for months now and your review made me even more anxious! Hopefully I can get to it before the year is over.

Booksnyc said...

This book sounds great and would be a perfect pick for the Immigrant Stories Challenge. I am sure it will make me look differently at my own corner Korean deli.