When Ben Ryder Howe, a young editor at the Paris Review literary magazine, told his boss, George Plimpton, that he was going into the New York City deli business, Plimpton reacted by asking for a job.
“Incidentally, can I work there? I’ve always wanted to be a stocker,” said Plimpton, a journalist who famously wrote about taking on jobs, such as a professional golfer, despite any evident skill.
“As usual, I’d underestimated him,” Howe said of Plimpton’s reaction to the deli, in an interview. “George loved the amateur ethos, the idea of being one of the little guys.”
Howe’s memoir, My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store, will be published in March. It details the two years he lived a “double life” — combing through piles of manuscripts in the basement of Plimpton’s Manhattan townhouse in search of a great new literary voice, while working shifts at a Brooklyn deli that he bought with his Korean-American in-laws.
It also offers a lens into the final days of the Paris Review under Plimpton, the magazine’s co-founder and first editor who died in 2003 at the age of 76.
For Howe, it felt like whiplash, until he began to savor the contrast.
“The Paris Review was fun and at times a very social place. Famous authors were always dropping by, and George would encourage us to stop working and come have a drink with them,” Howe said about the magazine which helped writers such as Philip Roth, V. S. Naipaul and Rick Moody.
“But nothing is as unpredictable as standing at the cash register of a New York deli. You have no idea who’s going to walk in or what kind of situation is going to develop,” he said.
THE “LIGHT TOUCH”
But if Plimpton ran the Review with a “light touch” — and little grasp of how to run a successful business, as Howe writes — the same cannot be said for Kay, Howe’s tough-as-nails mother-in-law, who is his main partner in running the deli.
Kay wants a deli with a steam table where customers buy lukewarm food by the pound. Howe wants the family to buy a more upscale deli-grocery stocked with European cookies and good coffee.
They wind up with a tiny Brooklyn storefront down the street from a jail where the loyal clientele threatens to launch an insurrection at the mere suggestion at an adjustment — in the placement of bran muffins, or the terrible coffee.
Howe quickly discovers that the deli is an “unofficial community center,” and that it belongs to the neighborhood just as much as to his family. The tiny deli was part hang-out, where regulars might spend hours socializing, and part jungle.
“The owner of a deli faces do or die every day. The profit margins are so small, the room for error is practically nonexistent, and there’s no union or parent company to bail you out,” said Howe.
In the end, though, none of it was to last.
Plimpton passes away, sending the fate of the literary magazine into limbo. And Howe’s mother-in-law is told by her doctors that working at a deli is too stressful.
They sell the deli, Howe leaves the Review and he and his wife move out of Kay’s basement where they lived to save money.
Looking back on the experience, Howe — who is working on a novel and raising two small children — does not hesitate when asked if he misses the deli. He said he would absolutely like to have that kind of work again.