Walk down pretty much any street in New York or its environs and you’re going to find a deli. It might be a dark, foreboding hole-in-the wall, or it could be a gourmet’s delight. It might have a window displaying dozens upon dozens of exotic beers (none of which are actually sold there), or it might have the best sandwiches in the city. No matter what you find inside, one thing is for sure: For that neighborhood, it’s the center of the universe.
This is an absolutely delightful book that tells the story of an American man married into a Korean family, and his experience (adventures, really) in buying and running a deli with them in the Boerum Hill area of Brooklyn, New York. The story spans just two years, from the fall of 2002 until late 2004 with a brief afterward in 2009.
The author, Ben Ryder Howe, was an editor for the Paris Review during the time the story takes place, an experience that shows in the flow of the book. What elevates the story from the ordinary is the interweaving of his experience with his Korean family, their deli, his time the Review under the late George Plimpton, and the travails in the day-to-day life of a New Yorker.
The basis of the story is his wife’s desire to help her parents by buying them a deli in Brooklyn. She gives up a career as a lawyer to dive into the world of small business, helping them run the store. Howe keeps his job as an editor at the Review, where the lackadaisical work environment allows Howe to maintain both “careers.” Howe provides a delicious look at the last few years of George Plimpton’s life, in a miniature biopic of vignettes and anecdotes that illustrate Plimpton’s heart, soul, and zest for life, along with his insecurities. Plimpton’s death in September of 2003 coincides with Howe’s mother-in-law’s heart attack and Howe’s attempt with his wife to start their own family. It’s clear to the reader that change is coming, but you’re deeply vested in the story, rooting for the characters who are trying to hold things together as best as they can.
The book is also a very telling look at just how hard things are for mom-and-pop businesses, from day-to-day dealings with shifty suppliers and shady customers to the mindless bureaucracy inflicted by a government whose rules and arbitrary enforcement threaten day-to-day existence. One well-crafted scenario tells of an incident in the early days of the store when Howe is fined for selling a cigarette to a minor: A young man buying, an older detective in disguise distracting, and a store full of impatient customers making things chaotic. I felt like volunteering to testify on Howe’s behalf in court. By the end of the book, you’ll certainly have a new appreciation for the commitment, dedication, and insanity that the owners of these stores share, along with the support system of family, friends, neighbors and community that keeps them in business.
‘My Korean Deli: Risking it all for a Convenience Store’ by Ben Ryder Howe is published by Henry Holt and Company, 2010