City Paper is not for tourists
Some of the first things you notice about Good Hope Deli and Market are the leggings. Animation leggings. Cloud-patterned leggings. Gold glittery leggings. Basically-spraypaint-on-jeans leggings. A row of patterned spandex dangles above the counter of this convenience store in Anacostia, in sizes all the way up to XXXXL. And on Seres Snyder, a food industry veteran who’s run the shop for 7 years? You’d have to call them jeggings.
On a recent Friday, Snyder is wearing black, three-inch platform loafers and leg warmers with rhinestones that form large glittering bows on each ankle. A bright-red heart crystal, matching her dyed hair, hangs from her neck. She produces some leggings.
“Two inches higher in the back,” she says, pointing to the crotch. The extra fabric is an indicator of quality, Snyder says. When I ask about her own legwear, wondering if they’re one of the pairs on display, she lifts up her shirt, revealing a zipper and button. The talk turns to physical fitness. Snyder spent “10 years hiking,” and touts her expertise in martial arts. She displays a quick taekwondo high kick, reaching as high as a grown man’s chin. “When we come here, people didn’t accept us. In here you call the police, they don’t come right away,” Snyder says of the neighborhood, which has seen spurts of commercial and residential development in recent years but remains among the District’s poorest. “I have to take things into my own hands.”
According to Snyder, there’s at least one “incident” a day at Good Hope Deli and Market, which sits at 1736 Good Hope Road SE in Anacostia. Guarding against the potential for chaos are two rules posted on the store’s front door: “NO! masks in store,” and “Only 3 student’s one time.” On this day, Snyder and an employee stand by the door around the usual 3 p.m. rush, allowing only a trickle of teenagers inside the shop.
Snyder balks at the term “corner store,” not least because Good Hope Deli isn’t on a corner. “This is a convenience store. You have to have everything, one stop,” Snyder says. For now, that means sandwiches and unusual options like seasoned chicken gizzards and salmon fried rice, salads, various meat dishes, packaged foods, and household and personal items. Jewelry, hair curlers and hair bands, name-brand hair products for every possible need, air fresheners, and fresh flowers fill the shelves. What you won’t find are fresh vegetables, but Snyder, who keeps a batch of radish kimchi in her walk-in fridge for employees to snack on, is happy to sell a head of cabbage or some tomatoes. She offers her own bulk spices by the ounce upon request. “They love our seasoning salt,” she says. (There’s no alcohol, though Snyder wants to start selling it.)
Because of her strictness, she says some neighbors call her “Tysons,” as in Mike Tyson. “I’m strong, they’re not strong enough. They cannot handle it,” she says of her encounters with would-be thieves. Not long after she first opened the store in Anacostia, one patron filled his backpack with Tide and soap powder. Someone alerted Snyder, who followed the customer to the parking lot and grabbed his neck, pulling him to the ground. According to Snyder, he said, “‘Please, mom, let me go.’ I was putting him down. After that people call me Tysons. I have reputation.”
That reputation isn’t the greatest among her neighbors. “Everybody who owns the corner stores lives elsewhere,” one customer of Good Hope Deli tells me. (Snyder lives in Annandale and doesn’t employ locals, though she tells me she’s tried.) In the same building, at a corner barber shop, owner Benjamin Sellers says, “As far as my next door neighbor, she doesn’t have a good rep. I’ve given back to the community. When you have a business like she has, she triples the prices.” Snyder isn’t worried about offering a bargain, however—her place is about convenience, and there is, after all, a Safeway down the road with lower prices. Though she’s undoubtedly businesslike, she still has a palpable love for food service and a slightly sardonic warmth for her customers. A notecard by the register reads, “Do you have gambling problem? Call 1-800-Gambler.” It’s a joke; Snyder loves gambling.
Snyder was born in South Korea to a Korean mother and a white American father. When I ask about her background, she scurries behind the glass-encased register and returns with a single sheet of paper, with four paragraphs. 1986 to 1988: “Rented out small space on the path to well-known Chugok Spring and served authentic Korean dishes to visitors.” At a motel “in a mountain,” Snyder made tofu from scratch using the spring’s mineral-rich water. She has a background in “technical foods,” she says. “I can carve swans from apples; I can make flowers of vegetables, roses out of beets, and yellow zucchini to make flowers.” She left South Korea, she says, because her mixed American-Korean background incited ridicule. “I look different down there. U.S. is all mixed. In Korea, 99 percent are Korean. ‘Go back to your country,’ they would say.” Her younger brother, who was enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, encouraged her to come to the States.
Before opening Good Hope Market, she ran a prepared foods café in Alexandria. After 17 years of running the operation, a change in ownership forced her out. She ended up in Anacostia after coming across an ad in a local Korean newspaper. The store was one of the few places she could afford to rent. Margins are slim. Rent is around $6,000 per month, and working seven days a week for at least 12 hours a day, Snyder brings home about $70,000 a year. Her daughter works at the store, and her husband is often there, too.
“Because they got me one time like that, I want to be a building owner,” Snyder says, referring to losing her business, Braddock Road Café. She wants to open another food business closer to home. Snyder hopes her future endeavors include a return to her Korean specialties. Ask about her kimchi or where she gets her hot peppers, and you’re sure to get a mini-lesson on specialty ingredients. The rye bread is pretty good, too: “People think bread is bread,” she says, “but it’s not.”
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery