City Journal: Through the Plexiglas

Some see Philly's Asian-run delis as magnets for crime. Bill Chow sees his as a ticket to the American Dream (as long as he doesn't get shot)


It’s 7:54 p.m. on a Saturday night, and Mike Chow, Bill’s 25-year-old brother, who’s a graduate of Penn State, has placed a single Philly blunt in the Plexiglas opening. Mike works here 40 hours a week.

“When they talk to the wall, you can’t really hear,” Mike says as he hands the customer a different cigar. It’s possible that very shortly this cigar will be emptied of its contents, and the slow-burning lead will be used to wrap and smoke something I have a hard time imagining goes well with peach.

“Misunderstandings or whatever,” Mike says. “They’ll talk into the glass and — ”

“EXCUSE ME!” It’s an elderly woman. “Do that on YOUR time. This is MY TIME.”

Mike stares blankly.

“Can of Steel Reserve,” she says.

Steel Reserve 211. Alcohol content: 8.1%. Street name: Liquid Crack.

Mike places the can in a black plastic bag.

“Paper in plastic,” she says. “I want both.”

This is my third visit to Kenny’s. Having read the press accounts of Asian merchants getting shot when they take out the garbage, shot when they leave their buildings, shot when they’re anywhere that isn’t encased in bulletproof plastic, I expected a little more action than what I’ve seen. What I’ve seen is this: mind-numbing monotony. Customer walks in. Customer asks for beer and/or ­cigar. Customer leaves. Repeat for 16 hours a day, seven days a week, with the occasional death threat or brawl in the dining area thrown in.

Bill comes out of the back office and joins us. He and his wife Michelle have been married for two years. Their only residence, the first place they moved to after their wedding, is an apartment above the beer cooler. When Bill gave me the upstairs tour, I saw a futon mattress on the floor, a few photos, a baby crib, and a television.

Which makes sense. A stop-’n’-go may be many things, but “purveyor of high-­margin goods” isn’t one of them. A 40-ounce bottle of Hurricane, for example, retails for two dollars. A wholesale case is $12.50, meaning Bill makes about 95 cents a bottle. That’s before taxes, mortgage, upkeep and capital improvements, such as the barbed-wire fence he had put around the back after thieves disabled his security camera, crashed through the back door, and stole his leased ATM and a few cartons of Newports. The only way to make decent money at a stop-’n’-go — about $60,000 a year total for Bill and his wife, he says — is to do what immigrant families have done with tiny stores for generations: Stay open all the time, employ your relatives, and watch every cent.

“I don’t like when they treat me like a little kid,” Mike says. “It’s the little things. For instance, instead of ‘excuse me’ when I bring the wrong thing, it’s ‘I SAID A SIX-PACK OF BUD.’”

A man staggers in.

“Can I use the bathroom?” he asks.

“It’s past the time,” Mike says. The bathroom is a touchy subject with the Chows. Because Kenny’s is licensed as a restaurant, the Chows are required to provide customers access to the bathroom. But doing so has resulted in stolen toilet paper, stolen soap, someone defecating on the floor, and, for a friend of theirs who owns a stop-’n’-go in North Philly, a minor flood after a customer liberated the copper piping.

The man grunts and sits at one of the tables.

A woman walks in with a little girl and smiles at Mike.

“Let me have a ginger ale,” she says. She cranes her neck to see the contents of the soda cooler, but the plastic wall cuts off the angle. Watching her, and watching her little girl watch her, you can’t help thinking there’s something intrinsically humiliating in buying goods through a military-grade barrier. Does the little girl already understand that in her part of town, the business owners have to protect themselves against her neighbors, and that they don’t do that where people have money?