Corner Store Chronicles

As California Burns, People’s Market Makes Room for Everyone

This San Pablo market and liquor store is vital to the immigrant community it serves

Illustration: Derrick Dent

When 2020 is said and done, it’ll likely become known as the year of massive uncertainty. But with so much instability (from Covid-19 to crimson skies on the West Coast), corner store culture remains familiar. LEVEL’s Corner Store Chronicles series pays homage to the power of the store that delivers the warmth and care that ACME will never replicate. Whether known as bodegas, tienditas, or another term of endearment where you’re from, our hoods would be nothing without them.

I can’t see him smiling beneath his face mask, but I know Yusuf is happy.

The enthusiastic 23-year-old Yemeni immigrant works behind the plexiglass at People’s Market & Liquor on Broadway & 15th in San Pablo, California — in the neighborhood where my grandmother-in-law was raised, and where I’ve spent a chunk of my adulthood living with her and my wife, across the street from the busy market.

In Cali, we don’t just hop off a bustling subway station and into a row of bodegas and delis like in big East Coast cities. Here, you have to go out of your way or have a real need to hit up the corner spot on foot. So, when you pull up to the liquor store, it’s for a specific reason. But People’s Market is more than a quick stop for a beer or soda on the way to your next destination. It’s a sanctuary, of sorts.

Despite the second-largest fires in California’s history raging up and down our coast, a worldwide pandemic that has crippled economies and distanced us, and the literal ash and smoke in the air outside, Yusuf and the workers maintains a genuinely positive attitude and comical wit. Every day, from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., he serves the community.

“We provide the vital household needs for any family,” Yusuf tells me while ringing up another customer. “Just about everything they need to be comfortable can be found right here.”

During my visit on a weekday morning, the store is popping. It’s always popping. Before the pandemic, it was that spot where old heads and neighborhood hustlers would always post up in front of or send a homie from a parked car to run inside and come back with a brown bag in hand.

But it’s also a place where immigrant families can safely send their kids to pick up a bag of tomatoes, shampoo, even one of the toy water guns you can find in the second aisle.

Though many nearby businesses have taken a visible hit during the pandemic — announcing closures with signs taped to the windows — People’s Market has seen a boom in clientele. Somehow, the store has separated itself from the competition.

“After the stimulus checks came and people stopped riding the bus as much to go further out, maybe they just feel more comfortable coming here,” Yusuf explains. “I’m not sure why, but for whatever reason, we have had more business, and we love it.”

While chopping it up with me about the history of the store, Yusuf directs a beer delivery worker, cracks a joke with his colleague, delegates a task to the cook in the back, and attends a patient customer. He never misses a beat.

It helps that it’s the biggest corner store in the area and serves freshly made fried chicken — the most popular item. There’s also a produce section in the back, uncommon for a California liquor store.

Perhaps most of all, though, it’s that People’s Market & Liquor lives up to its name. It’s the spirit of the people who invite you back to this corner joint, the owners’ and employees’ gratitude and sincerity. It’s the people like Yusuf.

And Yusuf doesn’t stop. While chopping it up with me about the history of the store — which, as my grandmother has confirmed, has been in the neighborhood for more than 40 years — he directs a beer delivery worker, cracks a joke with his colleague, delegates a task to the cook in the back, and attends to a patient customer. He never misses a beat.

You can feel his confidence and artistry as he spins and whirls in every direction with grace. He switches smoothly from formal English with me to American slang with a loyal customer, then throws in some Arabic to his friend Zaid — you know, that guy just hanging out in the back listening to our conversation but not adding anything — and follows that by hitting another visitor with perfect Spanish.

I remind myself that Yusuf is a young immigrant from Yemen; neither English nor Spanish are his first languages. Yet he speaks both better than I do, and I’m a California-raised Mexican American.

The dude is fluid, and so is the store. Throughout the day, you’d never know a pandemic and firestorm were surging outside. Masks aside, everyone is in a good mood. A line starts to snake around the far side of the store, along the cold beverage aisle, as the early afternoon rush starts to pick up.

“We’re lucky to have such a chill and peaceful store,” he tells me, while still working every angle of the shop. “We never have no problems here, bro. Our customers are loyal and good people. Hardworking people.”

The Bay Area is a historically eclectic region and one of the most diverse places you’ll ever find. Despite having a relatively small landmass and population—our most iconic city, San Francisco, is only seven miles wide, and Oakland’s population barely cracks 400,000—we pack a punch of culture, history, and opportunity. It’s why throughout history, from the Gold Rush to the tech boom, folks have left wherever they’re from to live here.

It’s even why Yusuf decided to leave his country five years ago for a more comfortable lifestyle, after marrying his wife, a Yemeni American. I can’t help but contrast his vibrant and optimistic attitude to the often negative and entitled outlook of other U.S. citizens who don’t know life beyond our borders. Because even here, in our hood, where some might never come because they view it as undesirable, we have more than most people can only dream of, and People’s Market embodies that.

It’s why all the Mexican immigrants who filter into the store during their lunch breaks to grab food and a drink can crack a joke, despite the world outside falling apart.

It’s why the middle-aged Black man who lingers around the front counter after his purchase to talk about his failing relationship can gain a glimmer of hope, comfort, and advice from a few OGs.

It’s why the Asian teenager who picks up a bag of Takis in his Adidas sandals, with his hoodie and headphones on, can so casually slide in and out of the lively atmosphere without saying anything, except giving us a head nod.

It’s a home within a home. Somewhere we are all invested in, because we are all here and we all want better. We all know that by simply being kind to one another and recognizing that we are no different from the person standing behind us in line, we are a community. Even with all the pressures and stresses of our society’s current predicaments, we are still The People.

Bay Area writer, blogger, teacher. Books: Piñata Theory (2020); This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album (2019). Twitter + IG: @alan_chazaro

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