Corner Store: Film Explores Community Hub and Home

by Sarah Henry on September 25, 2011 · 16 comments

in bay area bites,food films

Yousef Elhaj works in his corner store 24/7. Images: Courtesy "Corner Store"

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?

A Palestian farmers' market vendor filmed in the "Corner Store."

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.

Corner Store: Offical Trailer – 2010 from CornerStoreDoc on Vimeo.

This post originally appeared on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Sheryl September 25, 2011 at 10:25 am

What an interesting, touching story. I remember my grandparents regaling me with stories about their journey to America from Poland and their struggles. I always thought those times were lost, but reading this makes me realize that there are still so many people who struggle and work exceptionally hard for their families.

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Sarah Henry September 25, 2011 at 11:02 am

There will always be the newest wave of immigrants with their stories of struggles to share, Sheryl. Different countries and continents, different challenges, but similar tales of tough times and hard work

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Christine September 26, 2011 at 6:00 am

I really enjoyed seeing this trailer and hearing about this movie. I hope I can see it sometime soon. I thought it was a very moving story. As a child of immigrants myself I am also familiar with all the ways that immigrants make huge sacrifices in hopes of a better life.

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Sarah Henry September 26, 2011 at 9:25 am

Thanks for writing, Christina. Keep an eye out at film festivals and public TV in your neck of the woods. I hope you get to see the film soon.

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MyKidsEatSquid September 26, 2011 at 6:31 am

Thanks for introducing me to this film–what a fascinating story. I too have a soft spot for corner grocery stores.

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Sarah Henry September 26, 2011 at 9:26 am

And why is that, MKES? Curious to hear what resonates about a corner store for others.

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merr September 27, 2011 at 1:13 pm

I’m glad to know about this film – it looks exactly like the kind my husband and I love to watch.

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sarah henry September 27, 2011 at 3:23 pm

Hope it’s playing near you soon, merr. More details here:
http://www.thecornerdocumentary.org/

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Jennifer Margulis September 27, 2011 at 7:20 pm

I would like to see this film too. I always think of the corner stores in Paris and wonder what the story is behind the men and women who own them.

Loved reading about your childhood. I hope you’ll write more about your visits to Australia and what it’s like to live in this country as an Aussie.

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Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi September 28, 2011 at 1:07 pm

As an immigrant too, I’ll be keeping my eye out for this one. Thanks for the introduction to a compelling story.
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Review: Woolgro Veggie Mats

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living Large in our Little House September 30, 2011 at 3:57 am

The corner store always brings back nice memories for me, too. This is such a great story!

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lara dunston October 6, 2011 at 2:45 am

Seems we share many similar memories of growing up suburban Sydney – though we called them a ‘bag of mixed lollies’ and I only ever remember them costing 10 cents though I’m sure they must have gone up at some stage.

I loved our corner shops – ‘milk bars’ as we called them then – and I still have a great affection for them now as I explore them around the world. A focus of the travels my husband and I do in our work as travel writers, and as part of a more personal travel quest, is what we call ‘local travel’, i.e. exploring ordinary everyday neighbourhoods and revelling in their delights. I’ll definitely be looking out for this doco! Nice to discover your blog via Twitter.
lara dunston´s last [type] ..Monday Memories: the Temple of Prasat Phanom Rung, Thailand

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Sarah Henry October 6, 2011 at 7:26 am

Hi Lara,

Trust an Aussie to catch something — I did indeed mean a bag of mixed lollies and I was trying to convey that each treat cost a cent (about 10 pieces in a bag). Since it wasn’t clear, I’ll fix that now.

As for milk bars, I think of them as something a little different — since they were the places where you could get those thick milk shakes in metal containers — and maybe hamburgers with canned beetroot and pineapple too. Though in some places the corner store/milk bar were one and the same. Regardless, both institutions are a dying breed these days.

Nice to learn about your blog too.

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