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Belle Ann Apodaca (photo by Stephanie Breijo)
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The walls of the shop tell the story of its founders and customers alike. (photo by Stephanie Breijo)
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The exterior of Oriental Food Store & Gift Shop at 4803 Forest Hill Ave. (photo by Stephanie Breijo)
In a shop at the edge of a strip mall, its exterior a faded tapestry of cherry blossoms, Japanese script and peeling white paint, Belle Ann Apodaca takes stock of the dwindling panko crumbs, boxed tofu, sesame oil, bric-a-brac and photos of customers alive and long passed, the culmination — and end — of nearly 33 years in business as one of Richmond’s first Asian food shops.
When the Oriental Food Store & Gift Shop opened at 4803 Forest Hill Ave. on Oct. 13, 1983, it wasn’t long before customers affectionately nicknamed the cheerful Apodaca “Li’l Miss Chin.” The neighborhood still had a decade or two before its nearby and now-busy intersection sprouted a CVS, a Walgreens and a coffee shop. The family-run business survived multiple recessions, natural disasters and even the death of its founder, Apodaca’s father, John Lino, who was just as lovingly dubbed “Mexico.” It's witnessed a gradual cultural and culinary awareness grow as bitter melon, long beans and other once-novel Asian produce became not only understood, but fashionable. But Apodaca, now 49, is tired. She and her common-law husband have been simultaneously running the business and taking care of her ailing mother — the shop’s original “Miss Chin” — and it’s bittersweet, she says, but it’s time to close. The bottom line is there are too many grocery stores.
“There’s just so many businesses now,” she says from behind the register, turning to a customer. “Everything’s half-price, so $15 total.” She pivots back to me and shrugs. “It’s been really hard because the bills are really high and we have all this competition.”
This city’s grocery landscape seems to have developed on a commerce-driven fault line; each year, more food stores open and close, and the scenery shifts. Would consumers prefer community-driven corner shops? The earth moves and a handful of neighborhood markets open. Perhaps Richmonders want more one-stop shopping? The tectonic plates grind and grocery goliaths Wegmans, Publix, Kroger and Whole Foods all vie for space and dollars. In the case of Oriental Food Store, Apodaca says her shop’s decline has less to do with neighboring bodega and bike repair, Outpost, and more to do with Midlothian’s vast international grocer, New Grand Mart, which Apodaca believes offers lower prices through bulk purchases for its multiples stores. But for all their stock, there are some items larger grocers will never contain.
If you visit before Oriental Food Store’s final day on Aug. 31, pay no mind to the harmless spiders and their homes. “They’re friends,” Apodaca says, laughing. She is so concerned for their well-being that she plans to release them into the wild before the space’s next occupant can arrive. There’s a lot of thoughtfulness here, and not just for the docile tenants. Promo fliers and posters for local DJ nights and cultural festivals hang from shelves that support a selection of hard-to-find Japanese and Korean movies. The aisles, once full, still offer a varied, albeit waning, selection of Japanese, Jamaican, Chinese, Korean and African goods lovingly tailored to the shop’s diverse customer base. On the outer wall of a half-full freezer is a collage of extended-family pictures. In one photo, regulars Lloyd and Carl grin; they’d worked together in Jamaica but hadn’t seen each other in 15 or 20 years — a chance visit to Oriental Food Store, somewhat of a neighborhood nexus, provided a reunion.
Near the front door, Apodaca tidies the shelf of Japanese newspapers. “This little kid was eating crackers and throwing them around.” She pauses to pick up large crumbs and part of a wrapper. “We’ll miss that, too. We’ve seen a lot of kids grow up.” But it’s the laughter she’ll miss the most, and she hopes you’ll stop by and fill the space with yours before she locks the doors at the end of the month. She’ll probably share her favorite products with you and maybe, as she did for at least one longtime customer, she’ll slyly drop a bag of coffee-flavored candy into the mix.