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. 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.

Jesus Mendez, Jr. has been busy in his role as assistant manager at Mi Tierra Foods, a Mexican grocery store that’s been on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley since 1996. Known for its wide selection of products from Mexico, Central and South America, Mi Tierra is also a go-to for its produce, meat, freshly baked pan dulce and savory eats from its in-store taqueria. These days, as is the case with most grocery stores, business has gone way up during the pandemic.

“When shelter-in-place came out, people started buying everything,” Mendez said.

Mendez has worked at Mi Tierra for nearly as long as the store has been around — 20 years, since he was 15 years old. Although the current crisis has made his job harder, he tries not to let the stress get to him.

“Working is better than being locked up at home,” he said.

His main concerns are making sure the store is sanitized and organized, that workers follow professional safety guidelines, and that customers follow suggested guidelines.

Cashier Alta sprays disinfectant on the countertop of the cash register before the next customer comes to check out. Photo: Pete Rosos
Two shoppers take a sanitized basket and disposable gloves from Mi Tierra worker Liz before entering the store. Photo: Pete Rosos

The store offers complimentary gloves to all customers upon entry and the checkout line is marked at six-foot intervals to ensure adequate distancing. Staff disinfects all products and shelves, and the store limits the customers to 15 at a time.

“Some people get upset about the 15-person limit,” said Mendez, “but we’re doing the best that we can with what we have.”

Shoppers doing their best to maintain social distancing while browsing the selections at Mi Tierra Foods. Photo: Pete Rosos

Most customers are coming for basic groceries, but there are a few items that Mendez is not able to keep in stock, like disinfectant. Another anomaly, the sale of canned goods is way up. Mendez has a guess why. “People are cooking at home now,” he said. “Or learning how to cook all of a sudden.”

Mendez is happy to help customers in a trying time, but does have one request. “If you’re sick, stay at home,” he said. “That helps everyone.”

Cirrus Wood is a freelance writer and photographer living in downtown Berkeley. There are few things he enjoys as much as playing around with the alphabet.