Corner stores in Oakland are predominantly run by immigrants from the Middle East. Most of the merchants are originally from Yemen. Some estimates report that 80 percent of Bay Area convenience stores are operated by Yemenese.
One of those stores is Foothill Market on 19th and Foothill in Oakland’s Fruitvale district. The Hassan family runs it. Ali Farrad Hassan is a first generation Yemeni-American, and has been working in his uncle’s store for a few years now.
Ferrad Hassan, or “Ali” as everyone in the neighborhood calls him, greets a 6-year-old boy who is a Foothill Market regular. The boy, named Sir King, usually buys candy and especially likes Reece’s Pieces. He and Hassan joke back and forth, and King eventually buys three pieces of candy.
This exchange is just one of many that happen every day at Foothill Market. It has been a fixture in this community for 10 years now, and it’s not just a convenience store. The market is a part of the neighborhood and pretty much everyone knows Hassan and his Uncle, “Poncho,” who owns the store.
“Ali” Hassan is a tall, slim 21-year-old, who usually has a big smile on his face. He grew up in Oakland, attended Oakland High, and is now studying at Merritt College. He plays sports in the neighborhood park. Playing basketball in the neighborhood helps Hassan get to know the people who come into the store. That can be useful when dealing with children who may have sticky fingers. The other day he caught a girl filling up her backpack with things from the store. Instead of calling the police, Hassan called her mother, who he knew.
But, people do try to test him. When situations become dangerous, Hassan says he has a system for dealing with it. And things can be dangerous in the convenience store business. Hassan says his uncle got robbed in 2005. But that’s never happened to Hassan. He says he knows too many of his customers for that kind of stuff to happen. Still, there are a few people in the neighborhood that don’t like him. He says he’s been called a lot of names, and has heard a lot of racial slurs.
Now, Hassan has established himself with most of the community. That friendliness means sometimes extending credit to trusted customers. “Moms” is one of these customers. Moms can get the essentials: some fruits and vegetables, bread, canned foods, even beer and wine, but no hard liquor. In fact, Foothill Market doesn’t even carry any. Foothill sells everything from tomatoes and bananas to chips and soda to firewood and bus passes, but Hassan says carrying alcohol is a headache.
As an added bonus to the strong relationship he’s built up with the community over the years, Hassan sometimes gets help from his customers when things get out-of-control in the store. Yet, Hassan doesn’t allow the harsh realities of the neighborhood that he loves affect his upbeat mood. During the conversation and chaos, Hassan remains calm and often cracks a smile as he continues to help customers flowing in and out of the store. That’s one of the many ways Foothill Market tries to be an integral part of the neighborhood.
This story originally aired on May 30, 2012.