To me, the best memoirs begin with the author thinking and acting one way and through the course of the book, changes and comes out, if not a better person, at least a different person. Ben Ryder Howe seems to have done this very thing and he writes beautifully about it in “My Korean Deli: Risking it All for a Convenience Store”.
Ben, a WASP from many generations of Bostonians settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts, married his college girlfriend, Gab Pak. Ben is from a laid-back family but Gab, a lawyer by training, is the child of first generation Korean immigrants who have come to this country with a fierce can-do attitude. Nothing is impossible in this golden land of opportunity if you work hard enough. The Paks, Kay and Edward, have raised and educated three children, through the ethic of hard work. Ben and Gab, together for ten years when the book opens right after 9/11, have moved in with the Paks – in their basement on Staten Island – and are considering buying Kay Pac a deli she can manage, as a sort of “thank you” for raising Gab. Ben is an editor at the “Paris Review” and Gab has a job at a law firm, working long hours. They see the deli as a way of working together and making enough money to move out from their basement dwelling.
I don’t suppose you could find two societal opposites than the offices of the “Paris Review” and a Korean deli. It would be like going from the equator to the North Pole, yet both exist in today’s New York City. Ben straddles the two worlds – WASP and ethnic – for the three years he and his in-laws own and operate the deli they buy in Brooklyn. As Ben bounces from one place – and one life – to the other on a daily basis, he learns about himself and his possibilities in a very visceral way. But learning to accept the can-do immigrant spirit does not make him turn away from his own family and their values. He has learned to balance them by the end of the book.
Ben Howe is a marvelously fluent writer. There’s rarely a wasted sentence or thought. He introduces the reader to some very, um, “amusing” characters – from both worlds, yet he is never condescending in his treatment of a drinker, be it his boss at the “Paris Review”, George Plimpton, or the store’s employee, Dwayne. There’s not a mean-spirited thought in this book, but despite the charity given to most of the characters, they are still shown as real people.
Howe nails the difficulties of owning your own small business- the strain it puts on a marriage, the constant money worries- it’s a 24/7 responsibility, much like having a child, which Ben and Gab are also struggling to do. His tales of the deli, what it means to the neighborhood, to his family, and eventually to him, give the reader a real appreciation of small business owners. I loved his story of Gab trying to get from Queens to Brooklyn during a horrible snowstorm, and of keeping the store open during the big blackout. Howe is a gifted writer, and this book is one I would highly recommend. It’s a great American story.
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