BY LAURA BOND
Hanan Chthieer has done harder things than push a line of shopping carts up an incline through an obstacle course of a parking lot — like flee Iraq in fear for her life, for example. But now this is her job, and it’s difficult. The wheel on one of the carts is busted, and it fights Chthieer as she tries to corral it toward the entrance of King Soopers Store 124, at Leetsdale and Cherry, as cars swerve by her and others back out blindly.
Chthieer and her daughter came to Denver in 2013 as refugees after ISIS, displeased with her husband, a photographer for the Associated Press, threatened to kill them. She’s worked at this King Soopers since July. Her English is limited and so is her vision, so she sticks to carts and bagging. It’s a good job, she says. The managers are nice and she’s learned some English words from the customers. She’s made friends with a fellow refugee, a woman from Sudan. Petite, with large brown eyes and dark hair covered by a scarf, Chthieer is the only Iraqi employee at Store 124. But she’s hardly the only person here from somewhere else. In refugee circles, King Soopers has a reputation for being friendly to foreigners. Chthieer was allowed to bring her daughter as a translator when she interviewed for the position. Many of her co-workers were recruited from the African Community Center, the Women’s Bean Project, the Urban League and other agencies that help low-income people, especially women and refugees, find jobs.
Since I first started shopping at this store six months ago, I’ve heard Russian, Spanish, Hebrew, French, Amharic and Arabic all woven into the chatter of the place, which hums along like the constant radiant emissions of the overhead lights. Based on my amateur ethnographic survey, workers at Store 124 come from Africa, the Middle East, Mexico and Eastern Europe, as well as from across the United States. It’s a funky, eclectic place — just like Glendale, the neighborhood in which it sits.
I moved to Glendale in March, myself a kind of refugee — from gentrification on Denver’s north side, where I lived for sixteen years. I moved for love and cheaper rent, somewhat reluctant, fearing I’d traded Victorians for strip malls, green chile for Chili’s. And it’s true that Glendale — that tiny Libertarian enclave in the middle of Denver, with its own city government and police force, and strip clubs and dispensaries aplenty — feels a bit like Las Vegas, with ’80s-era mid-rises that are likely bedecked with wall-to-wall mirrors and brass chandeliers. But it has something that Denver increasingly lacks: melanin.
Glendale is one of the most culturally rich pockets in the metro area, with a percentage of African-American and Latino residents that is significantly higher than that of Denver. Unlike my formerly beloved Highland, which has seen its population of Latinos decrease by 40 percent over the past ten years and where, at the time of the 2010 Census, fewer than one percent of the households were African-American, Glendale is still affordable to all kinds of working-class people, from all over the world. One in ten residents of Glendale was born in another country. This makes for a vibrant urban neighborhood. It also makes for a fascinating grocery store.
Inside King Soopers Store 124 on this Sunday night, the march toward a Denver monoculture seems slightly less inevitable. An Orthodox Jewish couple shops for bread, a boy with ringlets in tow. Two firefighters contemplate an antipasto bar with sixteen kinds of olives. An Indian mother-daughter team inhales sensual hits from lilies and roses in the huge floral department that sits just inside the main entrance.
Like most new or remodeled King Soopers, this a beautiful, competitively fancy store, with an inventory that might seem schizophrenic until you consider the economic polarities of the area. The always-crowded parking lot provides a clue, with Ferraris and BMWs from Montclair and Crestmoor to the north, beaters and bikes from the run-down condos to the south. You find more clues inside, where you can pick up organic plums, marinated peppers, sushi, prosciutto and parmesan from Murray’s Cheese Shop in New York, whose products were sold here before they became available chain-wide. But you can also buy dried beans, bulk rice and spices for cooking up an inexpensive curry, fried chicken and green beans to go, and all manner of pickles, meat and desserts from one of the state’s largest kosher sections. (You can also buy booze, thanks to a state liquor-law loophole that currently allows a chain to sell alcohol in a single store in Colorado — and King Soopers chose this one.)
Kelly Fox, multicultural products manager for King Soopers, is the intelligence behind the store’s eclecticism. She knows when to order gefilte fish and brisket for the Jewish high holidays and when to stock up for big events in the local Latino community. Every quarter, Fox mines demographic data to figure out what to carry in Store 124 and eight others located in culturally diverse areas. She also talks to community leaders to find out what sells well in local ethnic markets, to learn what specialty items might not be on a store manager’s radar.
“When I first got this position, I went to all of the local synagogues,” says Fox. “I knew that they were going to be able to help me. If there were products they wanted that we didn’t have, anything we were missing, I told them to reach out to me, and they do. I visit with them throughout the year.”
Fox, who describes herself as a “completely average, non-Jewish white girl,” has become an expert on the dining preferences of groups of people: apples, grapes and beets for Jews; smoked meats for African-Americans; gourmet ethnic for foodies. She hopes to bring in halal meat for Muslim customers soon. “We’re not really relevant to the Islamic community during Ramadan, but that customer base is out there,” she says. “We’ll never be able to be totally relevant to everyone, and we can’t and don’t want to replace the really specialty ethnic markets. But we need to be somewhat relevant to them. We need to be doing something.”
At 10 p.m., the lights in Store 124 go dim, as they do every night. The music gets a little softer. I look in people’s carts, ponder the mysterious particularities of other human beings. This is one of the secret joys of grocery shopping. Why seven cases of grape soda, Hispanic man with pigtails? What’s with all the shrimp ramen, drunk grandma? What will motivate the Asian woman, smiling in the dairy section, to choose a coffee creamer? Hazelnut or plain? And what is Hanan Chthieer thinking as she places the Totino’s Pizza Rolls and Prosecco in a bag?
I’ll never know. But in the parking lot, as I push my cart to the curb, I’m so happy for this odd, well-lighted place, with its wide variety of fascinating strangers.