I’ve always had a soft spot for corner stores. As a child in suburban Sydney I used to walk to the one in my neighborhood run by Greek immigrants to pick up the afternoon paper and ciggies for my mum. Then I’d skim five or ten cents of the change for a little white paper bag of mixed lollies (candy that cost a penny a piece) like bananas, milk bottles, freckles, musk sticks, raspberries and other forbidden sweet treats I’d happily devour on the short stroll home.
When I moved to the inner city as a university student the corner store, run by immigrants of origin that escapes me now, was the place to go for hangover breakfast supplies: milk, tea bags, cereal, yogurt, juice, eggs. (Booze was easily bought at 18 at the drive-through “bottle-o” aka bottle shop.)
I’ve lived in the Bay Area most of my adult life. But when I go back home, as I do frequently, I love ducking into corner stores in different parts of Sydney. In the inner-city suburb known as Rozelle, one of my first stops to see dear friends, after the obligatory hugs, laughs, and ubiquitous cups of tea, comes a pit stop to the corner store. We pick up Turkish bread, home-made tabouli and hummus, along with Portuguese custard tarts and raspberry friands, a popular little oval-shaped teacake.
It doesn’t matter how long I’ve been away, the Lebanese family who have run the store for years are always there. A door behind the counter is open, and many family members are often sitting in their living room, doing what families do in their living rooms: talking, reading, watching TV, playing, and drinking cups of tea.
Our exchange is always the same: How are you? How are the kids? Look how they’ve grown! A quick word about the weather or a compliment about the food and my son and I are on our way — but not before he’s chosen his own little bag of lollies he picks up when we travel back to Australia.
As an immigrant myself, I’ve always been drawn to the stories of people who inhabit two worlds, who call two places home, their homeland of birth and their adopted homelands.
In the three cities I’ve called home: Sydney, San Francisco, and Berkeley, as all over the world, corner stores are primarily immigrant-owned businesses. And these people have their own stories to tell about where they’re from and how they landed here. If only people took the time to ask.
Lucky for us, film maker Katherine Bruens did. No surprise, then, given the subject, that I was predisposed to want to see her documentary “Corner Store,” a small film with a big heart airing Sunday at 6 p.m. as part of KQED’s “Truly CA” documentary series.
Yousef Elhaj is a Palestinian immigrant who has owned a corner store on Church Street in the Castro for more than 10 years. A corner store owner in his homeland too, he left Bethlehem after the second intifada when his business went bust and he was desperate to find work to support his family of five, including two sons and a daughter. There was, he says on camera, no money for milk or medicine. His goal: Put his head down, work hard, and save enough money to send for his wife and kids for a better life in the U.S. Who knew it would be ten years before he saw them all again?
Elhaj, who entered lawfully via a brother already in the States, takes immense pride in his store and works long hours; he opens at 7:30 and closes at midnight. He lives upstairs in a tiny apartment with a neatly made single bed. Every day he speaks with his family, sometimes his children ask him for big ticket items like iPods and cameras. He protests about the expense but then buys them anyway, as parents sometimes do.
Even before she knew his back story, Bruens, a regular customer as well as the film’s director, was struck by Elhaj’s commitment to his store and customers, she says on a recent Forum episode.
He’s a good listener with an empathic ear, says Bruens. She should know, she spent time talking with him when she lost her job and he helped to keep her spirits up. Over time, she learned about Elhaj’s own challenges, which she says made her own pale in comparison. As a filmmaker, how could she not document his struggle to reunite with his family?
After a long, lonely, hard decade, Elhaj gets good news: His family can join him in America. We watch as he makes the long journey home and his obvious joy in seeing his children. His oldest, now 18, is a man, with a job and a girlfriend. His daughter is a giggly 16-year-old with a solid grasp of English, his younger son doesn’t recognize him. He was two when his dad left home.
We also witness the conflict he feels as he fits back into the familiar rhythms of life in Palestinian Bethlehem and the pleasure he and his wife show in such simple acts as shopping at local farmers’ markets. But there’s an undercurrent of greater conflict too: Half the market is walled off and only open to Israeli military officers. It takes hours to get around because of checkpoints and one day the family home’s water is simply cut off. Elhaj gives viewers a tour of the modest house where he grew up and the one he built, where the family now lives, with evident pride. The camera reveals the surrounding devastation that only years of turmoil can bring. Despite the challenges and tragedy, it’s still home.
But this isn’t a polemic on the evils of war, nor is it a social commentary on the goods stocked at most corner stores, including Elhaj’s, namely liquor, processed grocery items, and Lotto tickets.
It is the story of how one man created a sense of community in a corner of San Francisco, where most people simply stop by to pick up milk, and the sadness and sacrifice this shopkeeper quietly endures to secure a better life for his family.