There are several reasons why Gujaratis, Patels in particular, run convenience stores as well as 7/11, Subway and Dunkin Donuts franchises across America. The main reason is that these businesses do not require high professional skills. They require great tenacity and tolerance for tedium. Many immigrant Gujaratis in general and the Patels in particular, who are here in America on family visas and and often on no visas, are loaded with both those qualities.
They have a very limited choice when it comes to vocations. As a result, they draw on their default calling—selling. All Gujarati-owned convenience stores have a certain look of sullen utilitarianism. Elegance has been carefully shorn out of the goods they display. There is a reason why they are called “convenience” stores. They are convenient because they sell things that are essential and/or basic. Their owners know they are not running a YSL store in Milan. They reason that the existence of convenient goods on any shelf is their intrinsic merit and salability. But even in such stores, cigars and tobacco products are given a position of prominence. They are often found in a glass display case below the cash counter. Cigars are expensive and margins are good. That bit offers me a neat little segue to the purpose of carrying the somewhat out of focus frame from a CCTV footage of a store in Ferguson, Missouri, which is in ferment these days over the police shooting of the 18-year-old Michael Brown on August 9.
This particular frame shows Brown grabbing and pushing the store owner, identified as Andy Patel. According to police and media reports Brown had picked up a box of cigarillos and walked out without paying for them. In the surveillance video that the local police released much against political counsels you can see Patel trying to stop Brown and apparently asking for the money. Patel is nearly half of Brown’s size and was being ambitious in thinking that he could make the teenager pay. Fortunately for Patel, Brown did nothing more than push him aside and walked out with the cigarillos. Those are all still allegations.
It is not as if being a Gujarati I come automatically equipped with an innate ability understand the workings of such businesses and the mindset of those who run them. Actually, I do. That and my naturally curious profession of journalism has helped me gain considerable insights into the workings of such stores. I have a friend here in Naperville who runs a grocery store and also cells cigars, cigarillos and other tobacco products. He tells me that margins are high on tobacco products. I doubt if Andy Patel would have felt so bold as to try and head off Brown had he flicked a pack of Cheetos but one can never predict what may trigger courage.
I have a weakness for events that connect tangentially. In this case, the particular convenience store and its owner or clerk or both have become tangentially connected with the deeper sociocultural fractures and strains that get exposed so frequently across America. Such convenience stores often find themselves at the frontline of these social tensions as much as they help bridge those social gaps.
As a Gujarati liquor store owner in a gang-infested neighborhood of Jersey City once told me, “I now speak better Spanish than Gujarati or English to stay alive because the money is good.” He turned to his Hispanic girlfriend and asked, “I tell him I speak great Spanish.” She concurred with an emphatic “Sí, sí”, adding, “His Spanish is better than mine.”