All Photos by Tanwi Nandini Islam

Gods and Small Tings

“When times are good, people might go for the Absolut, when they’re bad it’s Smirnoff or Georgi,” says Anil, who runs 1-2-3 Liquors on Jamaica Avenue…

By Tanwi Nandini Islam
March 5, 2014 | , , , , , ,

Along the outer edges of New York City, subway lines emerge aboveground. In Richmond Hill, below the J, Z and A trains, markers of immigrant commerce are everywhere, selling what the community needs: prepaid cell phones, bootleg DVDs, liquor, ethnic chow, religious supplies, discounted clothing. Each store is vying for loyal customers during a shaky economy.

“When times are good, people might go for the Absolut, when they’re bad it’s Smirnoff or Georgi,” says Anil, who runs 1-2-3 Liquors on Jamaica Avenue with his wife Marissa. “People still come just as regularly as before, but they buy what they can afford.” A regular customer enters, newspaper in hand. Anil greets him and they exchange a friendly rapport. Minutes later, Anil nods and lets his customer in behind the plexi-glass partition between the register and the shop, to sit and read his paper.

Anil’s shop is a liquor library. His rum catalog reveals all of the ethnic communities in his customer base. Guyana’s El Dorado, Flor de Caña from Nicaragua, and White Horse scotch, a favorite among Punjabi customers, line the walls.

The tragic death of one of his regulars, a neighborhood handyman named Ako, was a deep loss. “He’d been sitting here for hours. I spent the evening he died with him,” says Anil, recounting the night in October 2013 when a gas explosion in an old house with grandfathered electric wiring took his friend’s life. “When it came to his funeral, we raised money. All of his friends paid for everything,” says Anil. Over the years, regular customers like Ako have become Anil and Marissa’s family.

Anil's perch behind the counter of 1-2-3 Liquors in Richmond Hill.

Anil’s perch behind the counter of 1-2-3 Liquors in Richmond Hill.

Anil’s shop is a liquor library. His rum catalog reveals all of the ethnic communities in his customer base. Guyana’s El Dorado, Flor de Caña from Nicaragua, and White Horse scotch, a favorite among Punjabi customers, line the walls. Owning a lucrative business hasn’t always been an easy road for Anil. Just a few years ago, he says he faced intimidation by a Punjabi businessman who wanted buy one of Anil’s liquor stores. When Anil refused to sell for a lower price, things didn’t go so well. “I came to find that I had been reported for code violations,” says Anil. “Tension exists, for sure. But when I opened up here, my loyal customers, even the Punjabis, followed me.”

According to The Newest New Yorkers, numbers of Guyanese immigrants counted in the 2010 census is nearly 140,000—making them NYC’s fifth largest ethnic group. “But now, they’re losing the title for many reasons. Punjabis will come and by ten properties cash,” says Maharaj.

Marissa enters the shop with their excitable miniature poodle, Cookie. Says Anil, “We don’t have kids, but she’ll do.”

Just outside of his shop, an empty bottle of Smirnoff lies in a dirty pile of snow.

While Anil and his wife Marissa sell liquor to neighbors looking for succor, there is another husband-wife duo that runs a vegan bakery on the other commercial corridor in Richmond Hill, Liberty Avenue. Three-tiered colorful wedding cakes, adorned in sugar hibiscus flowers, gold elephants and intricate frosting sit in the window. Rose Valley Cakes is owned by married couple, B. Tandon and Kamala Maharaj; he is Indian, she is Trinidadian. Their bakery provides animal-and-dairy free products for an increasingly health conscious community, borne out of their familial experience with diabetes.

“Richmond Hill is owned by Punjabi Sikhs. Little Guyana gets its name from the [number of] Guyanese here,” says Maharaj, eating their lunch buffet of lentils, rice and kofta balls. According to The Newest New Yorkers, numbers of Guyanese immigrants counted in the 2010 census is nearly 140,000—making them NYC’s fifth largest ethnic group. “But now, they’re losing the title for many reasons. Punjabis will come and by ten properties cash,” says Maharaj.

Vegan confections at Rose Valley Bakery.

Vegan confections at Rose Valley Bakery.

Her husband interjects, “We suffered quite a bit. Being an Indian, being West Indian. People were not receptive. Being Indian, everybody here thinks within next five years I will throw all these people out and take over. These are the words they’ve used.”

With the success of their bakery, customers have kept mum about any of these reservations. It’s often a matter of finding a connection to either one of them. Kamala says, “When an Indian come—they know an Indian here. When Caribbean people come, they know a Caribbean baker here.”

Kamala Maharaj with her pastries and B. Tandon.

Kamala Maharaj with her pastries and B. Tandon.

“With the economy the way it is, people are hand-to-mouth, it’s tough out there,” says Tandon. Minutes later, an elderly customer, Shakuntala, makes her way into the shop. She rests her cane against the table and settles into a chair, spreading her Caribbean Star newspaper in front of her. “No small ting, I had two strokes,” says Shakuntala, wide-eyed at all of the options at the bakery, and, perhaps, a residual tic from her strokes. She begins a guessing game with me about my birth month and ethnicity. Born in October, Bengali—she guesses correctly. I give her one of my purchases of the day, a Shakti Chants CD featuring Indian singer Anuradha Paudwal. “Very good singer, this one,” says Shakuntala, smiling.

Tandon stands beside her, waiting for her to order. She’ll get the lunch buffet for $7.95.

Behind the counter at 1-2-3 Liquors, a print of Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, is plastered beside the register. “This is my god,” says Anil, gesturing to the walls of liquor surrounding him. “This is what’s given me this life.”

On the strip of Liberty Avenue between 122nd and 125th street, just below the A train, there are a handful of Hindu religious paraphernalia shops. Each store beckons devotees inside with rainbow-colored chains of plastic flowers. “I’ve been here 21 years. Business mostly come from my regular customers,” says Anjee, owner of an eponymous shop that houses costume jewelry, devotional supplies and Indian dress. A woman walks in and asks Anjee about the price of a bedazzled sari. Two saleswomen start helping the customer find what she needs for her event…Their chatter denotes the familiarity between a business owner and her regulars, as well as the friendship among worshipers at the same temple.

Namaste store in Richmond Hill.

Namaste store in Richmond Hill.

The stores along Liberty and Jamaica Avenues bear resemblance to any neighborhood’s commercial areas. They are places to buy necessities, or to momentarily escape. They are places to connect the dots between the worlds every dweller inhabits. Behind the counter at 1-2-3 Liquors, a print of Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, is plastered beside the register. “This is my god,” says Anil, gesturing to the walls of liquor surrounding him. “This is what’s given me this life.”

 

Tanwi Nandini Islam is an Open City fellow covering Richmond Hill.

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