Thank goodness for corner stores. In the age of COVID-19, convenience stores and specialty markets have come into their own. Along with providing basic provisions (and then some), these independently owned businesses are often a hub for their communities — a place to pick up groceries, household goods and the latest neighborhood news. Nosh is paying tribute to a few of them over the next few weeks. We fully acknowledge this is just a tiny sample — so please leave a comment telling us about your favorite neighborhood store and how it’s rising to the challenge of serving its community during a public health crisis.
During the first couple weeks of coronavirus-induced panic-buying, while elsewhere in the East Bay shoppers besieged Costco, raided Safeway and ruthlessly stripped the shelves at Target and Walgreens of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, the scene in East Oakland was one of calm and collected serenity.
Most of the area’s corner stores, like Four Star Liquor Mexican Groceries in Allendale, haven’t experienced stampedes of consumers. Here, a different attitude prevails. Customers only buy what they need for the moment. It doesn’t seem to cross anyone’s mind to hoard.
On a recent Saturday night, a steady stream of customers came into Four Star to buy Advil, potato chips, blunt wraps, ice cream, beer and Lotto tickets. On Sunday morning a family bought a boxed muffin mix and laundry detergent while an elderly man stopped in to pick up a fifth of vodka.
I dropped in for bleach, sponges and baking soda, and noticed the store was well stocked. Stocks of beans, pasta and canned goods were ample; fresh La Finca Tortilleria tortillas were at hand; and aisles were lined with cans of sardines packed in tomato sauce, pickled chilis, packets of cinnamon, bay leaves, cloves and other spices.
The store has been run for years by a Yemeni family. Ali, the young man working behind the counter on a recent Monday morning shrugged when I asked, “How’s business?” Slower than usual, he said, but not bad. COVID-19 is scary, he said while bagging my purchase, but he added that his family is used to adversity. He and his uncle, who owns the store, came to the United States to escape a civil war.
Four Star evokes a distant Oakland when Key System streetcars trundled up and down the avenues past neighborhood shopping districts. Most of the businesses along 38th Avenue closed down decades ago, but Four Star and other corner stores remain vital parts of the cityscape, saved and revitalized by immigrants.