The Death of the Diasporic Corner Store?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because globalization is a little more complicated than you might reckon.
By Sanjena Sathian
There are thousands of cassette tapes lining the walls and glass display cases of Anil Dhupelia’s music and fabric shop in Berkeley, California. They are Bollywood soundtracks for films like Lagaan and Kal Ho Naa Ho, religious prayer songs and classical music suitable for a Hindu temple. Dhupelia’s store, Shrimati’s, is also stacked high with cardboard boxes, packing plastic and a merry mess of moving-related materials; he’s closing down the place he’s run for nearly four decades.
But, it turns out, those cassette tapes are still flying off the shelves. And his customers are about to pay as much as 40 times the amount he once charged for those old-school goods. Because even as Dhupelia shuts down his brick-and-mortar store, he’s found a new market: shipping CDs and cassette tapes abroad, to people who can’t find the oldies and the goodies in their own neighborhoods. Want proof? He pulls out a stack of bright yellow invoices, with an order for some 20 CDs and a couple of cassettes for a gentleman in Kolkata (in northeast India) who’s dropped $40 on shipping costs for discs that cost about $6 or $7 a pop. Oh, and get this: Those CDs were made in Kolkata.
Ah, globalization and technology, and those who would have us believe these are one-way forces, flattening all that lies in their path. Somewhere, like little fish swimming upstream against the some $300 billion Indian export market — some $20 billion of which, the largest slice of the pie, goes to the U.S., according to the Indian department of commerce — a few minnow goods are making their way back home. This trend rides on the backs of two changes: First, the increasing assimilation of the approximately 11 million Indians living abroad, who don’t quite need the motherland the same way these days. And second, there’s the rising Indian middle class who are “keeping up with the Joneses,” Dhupelia explains. In other words, they’re willing to pay for luxury items, even $40 on what amounts to the sweet sounds of nostalgia. On top of it all, there’s the death of the industries that once served shops like this: Record companies halting production on grandmotherly tunes, which has ironically turned Dhupelia into a powerful broker of rare goods.
Transnational money flows get fancier in places like the Bay Area, beyond Western Union remittances sent to South Asia.
This movement is also part of a broader sea change, and one that’s become “the standard story of transnational investment,” says David Leblang, professor of politics at the University of Virginia. It’s right in line with Toyota building factories in the U.S. and Nike building in the Philippines to sell products back to the U.S. What’s unique about the Indian diaspora, Leblang observes, is that the transnational money flows get fancier in places like the Bay Area — beyond just the Western Union remittances sent back to South Asia by, say, oil workers in the Gulf. The explanation: all that tech. Immigrants in the heart of the land of biz and technology are highly skilled. They’re exactly the sort who’d create an e-commerce-ified economy … one completely powered by Bollywood nostalgia.
Pacing the store in full Indian-dad attire — a Hanes hoodless sweatshirt, New Balance sneakers and white socks starched up past his ankles, Dhupelia bemoans how times have changed: His shop was long the stopover for nonresident Indians (NRIs) who studied at Berkeley or lived in the Bay Area to buy their music, fabrics, even luggage and appliances. En route back home, they’d stop at Shrimati’s to pick up a stock of saris for moms and sisters as gifts — the special Indian-American fashions. (“American georgette was very popular,” he recalls.) This is a familiar story for the hundreds of thousands of Indian stores across the U.S.; in most major cities, you can find at least a few to service the immigrant population — in spots like Jersey City, New Jersey; Jackson Heights, Queens; or the Bay Area, Little Indias are ubiquitous.
Of course, not every shop is now operating like Dhupelia’s does. Grocery stores, for instance, say they’re not struggling to sell food. But the diasporic general store may well die off. An informal OZY survey of some 10 Indian stores around the country that sell physical goods suggests that most store owners can’t sell stock like electronics and books anymore — and most don’t have a plan to go online. That’s the case for Hemang Parikh, an employee at Woburn, Massachusetts-based EZ Indian Grocery Store, who says statues of Hindu gods aren’t exactly flying off the shelves. Shoppers say the same: 45-year-old Suri Krisram, who was shopping at India Cash and Carry in Sunnyvale, California, says she prefers to watch YouTube videos of songs she likes, since they’re now freely available. No need for DVDs or CDs any longer.
Until the end of the year, Shrimati’s gets to keep its spot across the way from an Indonesian restaurant, amid a flurry of Tibetan and Nepali goods stores, next to a campus-favorite taqueria, on a street with no shortage of other Indian stores like it. And then? On it goes online, where the rest of the diaspora dwells.
Robin Ngai contributed reporting.