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Grocers Ask: What's the Shelf Life of Hope?

Neighborhoods: At the Aloha market, you'll find shibzuke, ama shoga and kyuri. You'll also find the Uyeharas--struggling to save their family business and a piece of Japanese American history.

May 08, 1997|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Traffic roars past on Centinela Avenue, but it is quiet inside the store. Teenagers Ryan and Tammy Uyehara do homework when not waiting on the day's final customers. Their parents, June and Wayne, walk slowly toward the back, then climb steep stairs to the office. It's almost closing time at Aloha Grocery.

Like the rest of the store, the office is nothing fancy. Used also for storage, it is unpretentious, worn tenderly by time and filled with memories. June and Wayne, both 46, sit shoulder to shoulder on the displaced rear seat of a van they bought from a cousin to haul goods from the market.

Since 1956, when it opened as a one-aisle store, the family business has survived primarily by serving the Japanese American community. It has become a landmark at 4515 Centinela, between Culver City and Marina del Rey, an area where Japanese immigrants and their American-born children once toiled in celery fields.

Now the Uyeharas feel lost at times, left behind by changes in the community, caught between struggles and dreams passed from one generation to the next. Maybe, they think, they have struggled long enough. Maybe they need new dreams.

In Hawaiian, "aloha" is an affectionate greeting. More and more, as shoppers flock to supermarkets, as lifestyles and demographics of the community change, the Uyeharas face another use of the word: Goodbye.

They have considered closing, getting jobs and walking away from the pressures of a languishing business. Wayne weighs the advantages of steady paychecks, benefits, vacations to spend with family. Then he thinks of his father.

The Aloha was Hiroshi Uyehara's dream. "Hiroshi, own your own," his mother would tell him as a child. He envisioned it as he attended school in Japan; worked in Hawaii; hauled coal while imprisoned at Tule Lake, a World War II internment camp; and as he and wife Alice worked long days, years and decades to build the business.

Until almost two years ago, Hiroshi, 74, worked relentlessly, making all business decisions. A stroke forced retirement when nothing else could, leaving June and Wayne to make their own decisions.

They hope to give the Aloha one last try, but they have been turned down for a loan from one bank and are waiting to hear back from a second. The money would be used for minor improvements to the building, enabling them to refocus their inventory to appeal to a broader population, and to advertise.

They know it may be too late, but they believe there still is a place for an old-fashioned neighborhood store built on ideals set forth by its founder--hard work, appreciation, service and kindness--and that it is worthy of their every effort to save an old man's dream.

*

Most of the Japanese American businesses that emerged in the 1950s on Centinela are gone now. Bonnie Sakamoto, 72, owner of M & S Pharmacy, which opened in 1953, receives offers regularly from nearby chains who want to buy her out.

"I hate to sell it," she says. "They would buy it and just close it down. . . . An era is passing, and I think it's only a matter of time before we aren't here."

Many Japanese Americans who originally moved here have grown old or died. Their children, unable to afford housing in the area, have moved to other neighborhoods. The change is apparent even within the Uyehara family. Wayne and June live in Westchester. One sister lives in La Habra, another in North Hills. A brother lives in Whittier.

The Uyeharas came to L.A. from Hawaii in 1955. For 10 years after the war, Hiroshi and a partner had peddled groceries in Honolulu from the back of a Chevy truck. When the supermarkets came, Hiroshi sensed it was time to move on.

He and Alice, who were married during the war, brought their young family to California. For a year, Hiroshi worked at a downtown market, learning the ways of mainland business. In 1956, they opened the Aloha in a small space, 10 feet wide, sandwiched between a real estate office and barber shop.

What the business lacked in inventory, it made up for with service. In the old days, people bought rice in 100-pound canvas bags. Hiroshi delivered them and poured the rice into storage bins for shoppers. If they walked to the store, he offered to drive them home.

And, always, he thanked them.

"He always let people know how much he appreciated their business," Wayne says. "He taught us to appreciate what we had, because there were always people who were less fortunate."

The children grew up in the store. Kathy Nakamura, Wayne's older sister, recalls standing on wooden crates to reach the cash register when she was 10. Wayne, younger sister Gail Uyehara and younger brother Tommy Uyehara took turns sorting pop bottles, washing windows, hiding behind boxes to read comic books.

In 1966, the business moved into a bigger building across the street, its present site. Business was good in the 1970s but slowly tapered off. In 1985, Hiroshi embarked on a new endeavor, a way to boost business, which became his passion.

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