Jessica's Reviews > My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store

My Korean Deli by Ben Ryder Howe
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May 30, 12

bookshelves: nonfiction
Read from May 26 to 29, 2012

These days it's not uncommon for educated, upper middle class white people in their twenties or thirties to quit their corporate jobs and take up, say, artisanal cheese making or small-scale radicchio farming. There's this desire to be productive and see the fruits of your labor, to work with your hands, to feel the sweat on your brow. But what you don't see is an educated 31-year-old male WASP, an editor at The Paris Review, who spends the $30,000 he and his wife, Gab, a corporate lawyer, have saved, and buy a Korean convenience store for his mother-in-law, a formidable 55-year-old Korean woman named Kay. On nights and weekends Ben Ryder Howe stocks shelves, orders products, and shops at convenience store supply warehouses. By day, Howe works for famed Paris Review editor George Plimpton, organizing readings with Jamaica Kincaid and Robert Pinsky, and reading and editing potential literary masterpieces.

The book deals in a lot of conflict, mainly between Howe and his mother-in-law, Kay, as well as with his wife, Gab. Kay wants to keep the inventory as is, while Howe wants to appeal to the rapidly gentrifying section of Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, for example, replacing the horrible coffee that the existing customers love with a local Brooklyn brew. Then there's the internal conflict of working in a very white collar, intellectual elite job and a blue-collar one. Although I did enjoy reading about The Paris Review, I felt that Howe went off on way too many tangents, when I was a lot more interested in reading about the deli. Howe has a David Sedaris-like quality of making mundane or sad happenings into stories a lot more exciting or interesting than they actually are. There are some funny moments--like Kay holding up a box of condoms and loudly asking which customers would prefer, studded or ribbed--and some sad ones, too, and you find yourself rooting for them to succeed. However, I didn't like Howe at all. I found him to be really elitist and dismissive of his wife's Korean culture. I'm married to a Korean-American son of convenience store owners, and I checked out this book on audio, thinking that he might enjoy hearing about the commonalities they might share. He did, but we were both put off by his attitude. He doesn't seem like he's even tried to accept or embrace Korean culture, referring with disgust to the "fermented cabbage" in the fridge and his in-laws' Staten Island basement with relatives constantly staying. He claims that he wants to start selling high quality products to be forward-thinking and cater to the new population growing in Boerum Hill, but it seems like he just wants a store that he can be proud of.

There don't seem to be a lot of books about a white-collar person opening a convenience store, so if you're interested in the subject, I'd recommend My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store. But be forewarned that Howe's tone can be a bit abrasive. I listened to it on audiobook, and I think that narrator Bronson Pinchot decreased my enjoyment of the book. He can't do accents at all--Kay sounded German instead of Korean, and I don't even know what the Arabic characters were supposed to be.
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