Tuesday, May 17, 2011

My Korean Deli by Ben Ryder Howe

Ben Ryder Howe is the sweetest man on earth. Or at least he comes across that way in his memoir My Korean Deli: Risking it all for a Convenience Store, the story of his family’s attempt to purchase and operate a deli/convenience store in Brooklyn. He must be sweet – he goes along with this plan to please his mother-in-law! What a nice boy.

Ben, son of New England gentry, is married to Gab, daughter of Korean immigrants. Gab is a corporate lawyer in Manhattan; Ben is an editor at the exalted literary magazine The Paris Review. Gab’s mother, Kay, has worked for years in other people’s convenience stores, but longs for one of her own. Despite having what seems like enviable careers, Ben and Gab agree to purchase and work in said deli for as long as it takes Kay to get up and running, while still (most of the time) working at their original jobs to keep income flowing in. To save even more money, Ben and Gab move into Kay’s basement in Staten Island. Does this sound like a recipe for peace and family harmony? No, but it’s abundant fodder for a book like this.

Ben is terrible as a deli owner. He makes dozens of mistakes at the cash register, and doesn’t have a clue how to handle the suppliers or the staff. To say that the store’s success is erratic is an understatement; pretty much whatever can go wrong, does. The store gets robbed, is fined for code violations by the city of New York, and becomes a nighttime hangout for neighborhood drunks and drug addicts. Kay nearly drops dead from the stress of overwork. Nevertheless Ben maintains a sense of equanimity and soldiers on. I won’t give away the ending, but be assured that management skills and profits eventually come their way.

Ben also writes affectionately of working at The Paris Review under its founder and editor George Plimpton. Observant readers will remember that Plimpton was famous for taking jobs for which he was supremely unqualified (Detroit Lions backup quarterback) and then writing books about the experience. Is this book a kind of sideways homage to Plimpton? You decide. Ben Ryder Howe is much too modest to make any such claims.

(Book 13, 2011)

3 comments:

Ms. Wis./Each Little World said...

Just noticed this on display at the Meadowridge Library so nice to read what it's about. Can't imagine moving in with in-laws, in a basement and then running a deli. The mini boggles!

Shelley said...

As far as affectionate public perceptions go, all convenience store owners owe a debt of gratitude to Apu....

Carin Siegfried said...

I had added this to my TBR list recently, and you review has me thinking I should move it all the way to the top! Sounds great!

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