More than the loss of a mere business Grocery fire razed hub of help, sharing

September 22, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

A charred Korean-English dictionary, open to a definition of enduring happiness, sat in acrid debris on the sidewalk of West North Avenue.

The blackened pages, still soggy from the firefighters' hoses, were among the last remnants of City Food Market. The market, destroyed by fire last week, was just one more Korean grocery in one of the city's largely black neighborhoods.

But the shop meant everything to owner Tae Won Kim, who tried to turn the grocery into a place where local people could find not only food, but jobs, support and camaraderie. Now that the grocery is gone, the folks who came to rely on it are wondering what they will do without it.

"This was Mr. Kim's life," said Lewis Simon, 38, a stock manager who lives a few blocks from the store in West Baltimore. "And it started dawning on me after it burned down -- this was my life, too."

Kim, who worked in the shop seven days a week, grew popular in this community near Druid Hill Park despite the history of inner-city tensions between blacks and Korean merchants. The grocery was not immune to these troubles, but Kim managed to work around them. He and his employees, most of them black, shared a company picnic. Kim and an employee even planned a vacation to North Carolina together.

Good relations

When customers didn't have money, Kim and his shop clerks lent them food. When folks had lots of groceries, the workers drove the goods home for free. When payday came, Kim put roughly 15 percent of his employees' salaries in locked boxes in his office, to save for the future.

City Food Market, at 1314 W. North Ave., wasn't free from crime. But when people tried to shoplift, Kim asked them why. If they said they were hungry and he believed them, he would give them something to eat. Otherwise, Kim would snap their picture. His offer: Put your face on the Wall of Shame, where other suspected shoplifters' photos were posted, or go to the police station.

More than once, the suspects chose the police. Better that than be humiliated in Kim's store, where at least one person they knew would come in every day.

Now that the shop is gone, the victim of an apparent electrical fire early Tuesday, Kim has stayed away except for brief stops outside his demolished store.

"Right now, I'm still in shock," said Kim, 38, who came to Baltimore from Seoul, South Korea, nearly a decade ago. "I just need to be by myself."

Kim was one of 700 Korean-American shop owners in the Baltimore area, a close-knit group of business people who help each other with loans and advice. News of Kim's loss hit the Korean radio channel, a limited-frequency station in Baltimore, and soon folks were calling one another, inquiring about Kim.

Although Kim would not say whether he would try to revive the business, which he bought with a partner two years ago, his friends and relatives are skeptical. The insurance Kim purchased may not cover the estimated $350,000 in damage, they said. "It is a very slim chance that Mr. Kim will ever go back," said Jin Kang, Kim's brother-in-law, who runs a market on St. Paul Street. "It was his future. And now suddenly he is out of a job."

Signs of Kim's ambitions were visible in the debris outside the shop: a smattering of business cards, a charred guide to better business management, a bound business address book. And, of course, a ruined New Little English Korea Dictionary.

"He used to read that dictionary like the Bible," said Anthony Yarborough, 29, an assistant manager who lives in the neighborhood. "Whenever he heard somebody using big words he didn't understand, he had that thing out."

The influx of younger Koreans, such as Kim, into the work force has helped ease some tensions in largely black neighborhoods, said Kap Y. Park, a vice president of the Korean-American Grocers Association. Shopkeepers are reporting far fewer complaints than five years ago, he said.

"The younger generation, they are integrating more," said Park. "They have less of a language problem than older generations, and they study more."

Back on West North Avenue, the sight of the burned-out store stopped sidewalk traffic last week.

'I just feel so bad'

Lynette Walker, a regular customer who lives a few doors down, wondered whether she would find another shopkeeper who would help her the way Kim did. Once, when she ran short of

change, he lent her money. When she repaid him the next day, he was so pleased he asked her to take something off the shelves for free. She refused.

"I don't know what I'm going to do now," Walker told some former workers who gathered outside the shop. "I just feel so bad. I'm going to miss you all so much."

Now, City Food Market is further disintegrating. Shortly after the fire, a man was arrested for stealing 50 bottles of fruit juice.

Bystanders saw people stealing everything from diapers to meat. The money in the office safes is gone or burned. The building has been condemned.

Last week's fire put Simon, the stock manager, out of work and threatened to place him on public assistance -- something he has accepted only twice for short periods. As he stood outside EPIC Prescription with a job application in his hand, he wondered whether he would ever find a place as comfortable as Kim's market.

"It was very fortunate, running into Mr. Kim," said Simon. "He wanted the people around him to be just as successful as he was. Now it's all gone, and it just feels like such a loss."

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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