Nearly 15 years ago, Alli Safari came to America as an Iranian refugee; today, he owns My Market and calls Vassar students his family. He stands behind the deli counter in his green apron and greets customers with a smile and slight nod. The store is usually silent except for the hum of refrigerators, occasional hellos, beeping scanned items, crinkling plastic bags and an intangible aura of family.
Safari came to the United States alone and hasn’t gone home since. “I am from northern Iran close to the Caspian Sea and by the Border of Russia. The borders have changed,” he said. Having been a pharmacist in Iran, Safari compared Iranian and American shops and their ways of business. “The people are all the same and very friendly. In Iran, the government is a problem. We don’t talk about that… It’s kinda political.”
Safari’s extended family still lives in Iran and it isn’t easy to visit them. He said, “They can’t come here because America and Iran are not friendly together. They don’t have an embassy here and they don’t have an embassy over there.”
He misses his family, but is realistic: “Maybe I can go over there, but it is not granted that I can come back.” So he and his family use Skype and computers to communicate. This helps, he noted, “I feel like I am still home.” Not ideal, but a viable option.
My Market’s staff of four, including Safari, is Iranian and speaks Farsi with one another. They switch stations effortlessly from cash registrar, deli maestro and shelf stocker with the strategy to create an energetic, friendly feel to the place. Safari said, “When deliveries come, we all help stock the shelves. We do everything. The manager, Minoo Amirhosseini, who is in charge of ordering items and running the store, said, “The business has been growing, which is really nice. And I want it to get better because I like it here. It is very nice. I’m very comfortable here.”
Amirhosseini began college at New Paltz in 1990 after having come to the United States from Iran that year. She ended with a Bachelors degree in art and loves to paint, although she said,”I don’t paint anymore. Too busy.” But from the look of the grocery store, she has turned the space into a different type of canvas with which she can be creative. She often rearranges parts of the store to make it more visually interesting. The color scheme is pleasant to the eye, just as the items themselves range from the simple to the complex: Ramen Noodles to gourmet curry power, Bud Light to white California wine. Not a thing is out of place, and if it were, it is no doubt a deliberate effort on the worker’s part to draw attention to it.
Vassar students are the store’s driving force. Every year, the products change as the students change. For example, Amirhosseini said, “Last year we had a student who bought lots of one type of yogurt and I got it every week for her. And now she is gone. So nobody else buys it. So every year it is really different.” By trial and error, Amirhosseini has developed a store full of items that attract Vassar students. Kim Romonoff ’18, goes there for the candy. “I go there for Bark Thins Snacking Chocolate. I like to buy these really expensive candies when I have money.”
Amirhosseini said, “I like to provide everything that a student at Vassar would like. That’s what we did when we came here. We started seeing what they need here and brought in those items…We ask students what they like here.”
Once, when white lighters weren’t selling, Minoo used her background in art to help sell them. “We had some white lighters and we were not selling them. They were the last ones, and we had a bunch left, so I started painting them. I was drawing on them for every occasion. For Valentines, for Easter.” Minoo laughed, “And they turned out really good. The students liked them. I enjoyed it very much.”
Not only a place for peaceful shopping, My Market also provides a certain amount of freshness that on-campus dining can’t provide. Every once in a while, Safari or another worker goes into the back room to chop up some fresh Angus beef to package for sale.
Emily Krebs ’17, a frequent shopper, said, “You can go there and get a sandwich with fresh meat. And it’s nice to just walk there.” The store is on the corner of Raymond Avenue, close enough for a brisk walk over after class for some fresh fruit, or close enough for a quick run for some beverages on a Friday evening. Most, if not all, Vassar students would agree that My Market is a friendly place to shop. Krebs said, “Every time I walk in, I say hi, and everyone says hi back. They act like they recognize me.” She laughed, “Or I feel like they know me. It’s a nice and welcoming feeling. And when I leave, they say ‘Have a nice day’ and it seems really sincere.” This lines up perfectly with Alli’s philosophy: “Our customers are like family. If you love someone, they love you back.”
Kiran Kawolics ’15 went to My Market almost every day her freshman and sophomore year for cigarettes. She said, “Before I came to Vassar, I used to joke that it was my dream to be able to walk into a store or restaurant and order the usual. Sometime during my freshman year, whoever was behind the counter when I went into My Market would put a pack of Marlboro 27s on the counter for me before I even asked for it. Now, even though I don’t go there quite as often, they still get me my favorite cigarettes before I even ask for them, or they’ll ask ‘27s?’ when I reach the counter. It’s kind of a small thing I guess, but it makes me so happy whenever this happens. I think it’s awesome that they go out of their way to give individual attention to their customers, and that it has the potential to make such an impact on people’s moods.”
Kiran’s experience resonates with what Alli said: “Our customers are like our family. We try to be friendly with everyone.” Thus, away from their Iranian homeland, the workers at My Market do their best to combine business and family which can be heard at the front register through the crinkling of plastic bags and a friendly “Goodbye, have a nice day. See you soon.”