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My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store Hardcover – March 1, 2011

3.9 out of 5 stars 129 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, March 2011: In this laugh-out-loud funny memoir, Ben Ryder Howe, a burned out editor at the Paris Review, spends his days concealing his apathy from his eccentric boss (George Plimpton!), avoiding the short story slush pile, and anticipating the day he will move out of his in-laws’ Staten Island basement. When Ben’s wife insists they buy a deli for her mother, he is skeptical but somehow energized by the risk involved, envisioning himself behind the counter at a profitable little deli providing bohemian customers with gourmet groceries. Instead, he ricochets from the magazine by day to the struggling deli by night, where his regular customers drink beer in the aisles, his mother-in-law, the “Mike Tyson of Korean grandmothers,” squares off with Mr. Tortilla Chip, and his pistol-packing employee, Dwayne, conducts X-rated phone calls with his girlfriends while ringing up customers. Howe’s daily interactions with a unique cross-section of humanity and his self-deprecating humor infuse My Korean Deli with insight, hopefulness, and addictive entertainment.--Seira Wilson

From Publishers Weekly

Former senior editor of the Paris Review, Howe recounts his stint as owner and beleaguered worker of a Brooklyn deli in this touching memoir. Howe and his wife, Gab, the daughter of Korean immigrants, decide to buy a deli for her parents as a gesture of goodwill for the sacrifices they have made. His mother-in-law, Kay, whom he describes as the Mike Tyson of Korean grandmothers, is gung-ho from the start, and when a store is finally purchased in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn, she immediately takes charge. The work (including manipulating the devilish lottery machine) is more trying than Howe anticipated, not to mention dealing with the eccentric neighborhood characters who complain bitterly about any changes, from coffee prices to shelf rearrangements. Mostly working the night shift, Howe also maintains his position at the magazine. Both establishments are sinking ships: the deli hemorrhages money as bills pile up and revenue falters; the Review grows more disorganized, and subscribership plummets. Howe ably transforms what could have been a string of amusing vignettes about deli ownership into a humorous but heartfelt look into the complexities of family dynamics and the search for identity. (Mar.)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; First Edition edition (March 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805093435
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805093438
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.2 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (129 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #585,603 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By nekko1 VINE VOICE on February 20, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I was predisposed to like this book because I come from a family of Asian drycleaners. Much of Howe's descriptions and stories hit close to home - the long, soul-breaking hours, the lack of vacation of any kind (who will watch the shop???), the co-dependent family members who work there (to keep costs down and workman's comp costs down), the demanding customers, and the dangerous late night trips home with bundles of cash through sketchy neighborhoods. Been there, done that.

And yet when you have limited English and only your strong back and stronger will, you take on the significant risks of small business such as the deli, the drycleaner or the gas station as it is a path to financial success that is open to you.

Kay, Howe's mother in law, is the archetypical tough nut who suspiciously peers over the counter of a Korean grocer in a large urban city. This story puts a face on the kinds of struggles, the kinds of risks, the kinds of grueling physical labor people go through to make a go of it, while telling humourous, if slightly horrifying, stories of what it actually means to be behind that counter.

Howe does a great job of using humor to tell the backstory behind what it takes to deal with the deliverymen and all their tricks, the store's crumbling infrastructure, the crazy customers, the rude customers, the staff, some of who need psychological help and most dangerous of all the City Inspectors. I laughed loudly at his stunned reactions to what he was seeing happen in front of him. (And I remember thinking thank goodness the drycleaners closes at 7 pm!)

I do wish he had a stronger finish. The individual voices began to fade in the last quarter of the book. Perhaps this was by design to bring things to a close but I felt like towards the end he faltered on his original premise of the quirks and strengths of the individual players and their contributions to the strength and health of the deli.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
In 2003, Ben Ryder Howe was a struggling, underpaid senior editor (titles were cheap) at the Paris Review. His wife Gab brings in the big money in the family, working countless billable hours as a lawyer. Nine months earlier, they'd moved in with Gab's Korean parents in order to save money to buy a house. Then Gabbie started worrying about Kay's, her mother's, emotional health. Kay, whom Howe characterized as "the Mike Tyson of Korean grandmothers", had always been a dynamo but she was starting to look peaked. Several months later, Ben, Gab and Gab's family buy Kay a convenience store, a deli across the bridge from Staten Island, where they lived, in Brooklyn. Then life really became complicated.

They only operated the deli for a few years but while they did, Ben learned things about himself and came to a heightened appreciation of the values of his immigrant, go-getter, survive-anything immigrant in-laws.

Howe is a good comic writer. The book is loaded with zingers, like these:

On the difference between Ben's upbringing (Plymouth, Mass, Wasp) and Gab's (first generation Korean American): "In America, kids are supposed to antagonize their parents: they're supposed to torture them as teenagers, abandon them in college, then write as memoir in which they blame them for all their unhappiness as adults. But in Korea they serve them forever, without a second thought."

(Ben's grandmother once said to him: "You're not supposed to talk about Wasp values. You're just supposed to have them.")

On living in Staten Island, "New York City's pariah borough, a place where once-hot trends like Hummers and spitting go to die, a place so forsaken that not even Starbucks would set up a store there, nor even the most enterprising Thai restaurant owner.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
By day, Ben Ryder Howe is a part-time senior editor at "The Paris Review", which is being run by George Plimpton in a "La-La Land" sort of way. By night, he is a clerk in a Korean convenience store being run by his mother-in-law in a "This Is The Real World" sort of way. Mr. Howe and his wife bought his in-laws the store, because his wife felt guilty about all the sacrifices her immigrant parents made for her, working so hard to put her through college and law school. Thus, she decided to pay back her mother by buying her a store of her own . . . I guess so her mother could work harder than she had ever worked before in her entire life!

They all end up working there, in a Brooklyn neighborhood with all different ethnic groups, dealing with customers, employees, suppliers and the city of New York. The customers range from normal people stopping by in the morning for a cup of coffee, to crazy guys coming in at night and taking off their clothes. The employees range from the elderly woman who did not realize she was suppose to turn on the coffee hot plate in the morning, before selling customers coffee, to the super efficient and super chatty Dwayne Wright, the employee they inherited from the previous owner. (The book is dedicated to Dwayne Wright, and don't miss reading the dedication page, where Mr. Wright is quoted defining "Wizard of Oz disease".)

As Ben Ryder Howe goes between his day job and night job, he reflects on the differences and similarities between the two worlds and the people who live in each world. He is a boarding school WASP, with ancestors traced back to the Mayflower, so there is a lot to reflect on.
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