It’s always sad for me to write about the ghosts of places I loved, in decline or disappearing. (Favorite restaurants of the past, Dar Maghreb and Anisette, for example.) Such is today’s ghost story, my fingers tapping glumly at the keyboard…
I stopped awhile back by one of my favorite markets, the Safe & Save on Sawtelle. On a stretch of “Little Osaka” that’s becoming somewhat trendy with izakayas and Giant Robots, it was — along with Satsuma Imports and Hashimoto bonsai nursery — one of the last vestiges of the Old Sawtelle. A comforting throwback to a time before chains. The store was kind of like an old pal, rumpled and friendly. It reminded me of grocery stores in old Hawaiian towns like Wailuku or Hana. Sometimes there would even be old Japanese guys sitting out in front, passing the time. I’d say hello to Ricky Tsushima, the owner — always wearing his Hawaiian shirt and cap — as I strolled by shelves of stuff on my way to the fish counter in the back, where I could ask Jorge the fish guy what was fresh that day. Which was usually everything. Then I’d wind my way around the back, past the fine frozen selection of Hawaiian foods — lau lau, kalua pig, saimin noodles — to the deli aisle, where I would find my too-good-to-tell-anyone 4 oz. package of super fresh sea urchin for $8.99. (Less than the fancy markets charged for 2 oz.) Ricky knew not to give me that penny back, and only smiled and winked if I was 10 cents short.
This particular day, a sign on the door caught my eye. Closing business sale. I walked my usual route through the store, and everything seemed normal — although there were fewer things on the shelves. As I reached the register with my package of salmon sashimi, Ricky seemed happy as always.
“You guys closing shop?” I asked, as if somehow the sign on the door might’ve been a mistake.
“Yes sir!” he replied with a cheerful poker face, and I looked for signs of sadness in his eyes.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Too slow. Too slow.”
At my next stop, the chain Nijiya Market down the block, things were busy as ever.
It’s not as if sentimentality completely trumps progress — on Sawtelle, I can now get killer Tokyo-style ramen and epic Beard Papa cream puffs, or visit a world-class saké bar. Nor was it about product. There was nothing they had at the Safe & Save I couldn’t get elsewhere. The Nijiya just a short stroll away has more different kinds of fish and produce, the new Marukai chain store on Pico has a better selection of Hawaiian products. I went to the Safe & Save for something else… something intangible. I would call it soul. The difference between a Disney musical and an indie film. Not that you can’t have both — the sugary pop entertainment that feeds your sweet tooth, and the thoughtful, subtle entertainment that feeds your soul. But these days, more and more, it seems you actually can’t have both.
I passed the market again just a couple days ago. An industrial truck of some kind was parked out in front, hauling away some refrigerator units. Through the open doors, I could see emptiness where once there were shelves of sauces, saké, dried noodles, Japanese crack snacks, cans and bottles of every kind… and more importantly neighborhood lives intersecting, friendly words being exchanged, hours being passed. Ricky and Jorge were long gone, the only thing left of all this the lonesome sign still hanging over the door, “Safe & Save Market.”