“One more working stiff like everybody else”

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8:30 am: Walk to the corner store, East Village Market. Don’t plan to buy anything, just haven’t been in for a few days. Behind the counter, Adam Ateyah is fussing over an invoice, fiddling at his laptop, and fixing up around the place. All, it seems, at the same time.

Can’t recall when last I caught Adam standing still, except behind the register. He’s a nice guy. Feel bad for him, because he’s always beat to his socks. First thing in the morning, second thing in the afternoon, last thing in the evening, he looks like he’s never had a decent night’s sleep. Once he went on vacation and returned so refreshed that I had to look twice and make sure it was still him.

Anyway, today I drop in for a cup of coffee (you get as good a jolt as you do at the frou-frou shop down the block for less than half the price). Adam shares sad news. Mary, a local lady, may be succumbing to diabetes. He’s told her time and time again to watch what she eats. Everyone knows you can’t tell a woman nothing. Still…

God bless him, he cares enough to try. Mary and quite a few other folk get along well with Adam (which goes a long way toward customer service). For the hell of it, I ask, “Why you so damned pleasant, working behind a counter, stuck in this place all day? You never seem to get in a bad mood.”

“It doesn’t cost anything,” he says without pause, “to be nice. We’re here, together. Why not get along?”

True. Still, before he starts singing “We Are the World,” I pay up and hit the bricks, where it it occurs to me, why not pitch a story on this guy? Keeping East Village Market’s head above water, he holds down the store’s bottom line in a depression. (Recession, my foot — several blocks away, upscale coffee shop e.p. atelier just folded and, for store owners everywhere, the wolf is at the door).

A community fixture since 1992 (when it was called Mona’s), East Village Market is a place without which the neighborhood wouldn’t be the same. Not just because it’s handy. Shoppers like they way they get treated. Actually, since Adam stepped on board as manager in 2004, I haven’t heard a single person complain about the place. This speaks volumes considering how difficult patrons can be.

Speaking of which, East Village Market, located at 15th St. and 11th Ave. kitty-corner from Elliot Park, gets a strong cross-section of customers in a steady flow: Somali families from East Village Apartments and Townhomes, upscale White folk from that same complex, employees and students from nearby North Central University, and workers at Augustana Health Care Center, the old-folks’ home across 11th Ave.

In summer, patronage is considerably augmented by whoever’s relaxing in Elliot Park, mostly parents and kids along with picnickers who forgot to bring chips, napkins, enough soda. Folk drift in from the community center’s weekly open-air concerts. And there’s people who, just passing through, stop to rest their rumps on a park bench.

There’s a reason Adam’s always tired. When he clocks off at three pm, the day isn’t done. He puts in unpaid overtime, assessing what shoplifters got away with, figuring out the next day’s orders, and making sure assistant manager Sam and interning sales clerk Farrah don’t need backup.

“Sometimes,” Adam says, “they get busy and might need help bagging. A manager has duties, and it isn’t always by the clock.” I’ll say. He opens in the morning, making sure the floors and coffee pots are clean, and then starts his day.

Sam and Farrah routinely need backup: The guaranteed serious rush of the day is between noon and 2:30, but it’s been known to extend and keep all three of them hopping until four or five. When that happens and the after-work rush ensues, well, Adam’s trapped and might end up helping Sam close at night’s end.

Next time in, I’ve nothing better to do than bust this fellow’s chops (I’m a nice guy like that) about not having my cigarette brand. Adam, who didn’t just meet me yesterday, smiles and doesn’t miss a beat: “We stopped carrying that brand a month ago, and for the last month you keep asking for it. Aren’t writers supposed to pay attention?”

That’s what I get for busting chops.

How has the recession hit East Village Market? Adam ticks off a list: “Pricing increases. Every week, when we get the shipment, between 25 to 30 items, the price advances.”

Which is bad enough, except that customers, who have their own dollars-and-cents worries, get bent out of shape. “They think, ‘Aw, [the store] is jacking the price up, ripping people off,’ Adam says.” A can’t-win situation.

That, however, is where Adam shoves his shoulder to the wheel. He copes with price hikes, sustains a modicum of inventory and, importantly, keeps a core of regular customers. Even the disgruntled ones come back, because they like the guy enough to realize he’s one more working stiff getting shafted like everybody else.

The latest hike in cigarette prices hasn’t done any good. Adam has dropped brands that don’t move (just my luck, my brand was among them). “We’re putting on our shelves what sells. It’s a strategy to fight the recession.”

He compares the overall stock today against four years ago: “It’s less variety. That’s not good.” The latest food-recall doesn’t help. Week to week, East Village Market sells enough $1 bags of pistachio nuts to feed a squirrel farm. A California company recalled two million pounds of pistachios and counting. Adam shrugs. “You can’t sell what you can’t sell.”

The three keys in retail sales, it’s said, are location, location and location. Be that as it may, there’s a great deal to be said for East Village Market’s manager, a nice guy who busts his butt. Glad the shop’s there, and that any given morning I can try again to bust Adam’s chops.

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to dhobbes@spokesman-recorder.com.

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