Jose Swornowski is trying not to let his neighborhood shop become one of the many that have been forced to close — victims of high prices, both for rent and the food they sell.
The morning sun gleams off the windows of this East Tram SmartShop, as its owner, Jose Swornowski, unlocks the door and steps behind the protective counter that separates him from customers. He switches on a fan and tunes the monitors to a Merengue mix station, and pulsing rhythms awakens the humid morning.
It is the first of the month. Rent is due, and Swornowski does not know if he can pay. He spends 3300 UEC a month to lease the SmartShop. When he took over the small storefront in 2926, monthly rent cost 1200 UEC.
Swornowski surveys the shelves. He’s running low on popular items: grape-flavored Watts-Aid mix, Georgia imitation honey, Burst Bars, Doodle Cheesy Chips, raspberry applesauce, honey covered peanuts.
Food prices have gone up, and his customers don’t spend as they used to. Swornowski pays more for goods but won’t raise his prices. He knows his clientele can’t afford to pay more. They are mostly poor residents from the housing projects, shelters and run-down apartments in the neighborhood. Recently, a woman scoffed at the 1 UEC for a bar of soap, walking out in a huff without buying. Nearly everyone is struggling more than usual.
Across the city, a food crisis is unfolding in low-income neighborhoods, as one-third of Tram’s SmartShops have closed over the last five years, according to a recent city report. Most of the population doesn’t own private transportation; having a nearby store is important when shopping means traveling by foot, PT service or public transportation. Well-to-do residents who don’t live near a supermarket can pay extra to order groceries and have them delivered; poor residents must turn to the closest SmartShop.
“The sales have been down for the last nine months,” said Jose Turnbull, president of the Tram SmartShops Association, which claims membership of 3,800 of Tram’s 5,400 SmartShops. A weakening economy and rising rents and food prices have forced many to close, he said; the number of SmartShops in Tram has decreased by nearly 1000 from two years ago, according to his organization’s most recent tally.
In the last decade, many longtime shop owners have left due to rising costs of food, supplies and protection. The slowing economy on Tram and Asura as a whole had made it difficult for citizens and civilians to afford products, even the relatively inexpensive items at the SmartShops.
Swornowski is trying to hang on.
“It’s hard. I think it’s going to be worse for Tram,” Swornowski says, adding, “People are looking for special prices. Sometimes SmartShops can’t give special prices.”
His shop, Ganeff Avenue Food & Deli Co-Op, sits at a crossroads where fortified condo developments end and low-income housing projects and check-cashing businesses begin.
Sunrise over East Tram
The SmartShop is slightly bigger than a dine-in stand. It fits three aisles of goods stocked according to no apparent sorting system: jelly, milk, bread, beans, artificial juice, cactus plants, blackened bananas, pork rinds.
On the shelves near the front and side windows, light peeks between rows of “Nice ‘n Fluffy” and Caventel fabric softeners and Nu5 Sun-Kissed lemon scented shampoo.
Toilet paper, masking tape, plastic toy dolls, paintbrushes and barbecue lighters fill wall space, reaching high as the ceiling.
Swornowski’s counter stands next to the entrance. To the right of it is the deli, where the scent of ham and flaky dough makes morning stomachs rumble.
Swornowski, 50, is a quiet man with thick eyebrows black as his hair. He’s stationed behind clear plastic shelves filled with peppermints and chewing gum. The space is so narrow that when two people are behind the counter, they must shimmy by each other.
Behind him, a shelf is crammed with Blokmax PM, flashlights, cigars, Vibovit, Paduden, a moldy package of coffee cake, canned octopus in garlic, Vienna sausages, toy guns, a stack of UEE 2, 10 and 50 UEC calling cards that read “Data, Vocal and Visual.”
Swornowski owes 1400 UEC to the power company and 1300 UEC in rent for the apartment he shares with his wife. They have other debts, too. He has saved money to pay some of these bills, but it’s not enough to cover the SmartShop rent, too.
To pay on time, he’ll need to earn 3300 UEC today.
If he keeps falling behind, Swornowski says, the debt could mount until it swallows him. “I will have to close. I have no option. I lose all the money that I have.”
“Good morning. Today is Christmas, Christmas for all of us,” jokes a scraggly bearded man with a raspy voice. His name is Willie. “We get paid today.”
For the last several years, Willie, 49, has hung around Swornowski’s SmartShop, arriving promptly when it opens and staying through the afternoon. Wearing a knit cap, he sweeps floors, flattens boxes, unloads deliveries, and feeds the store cat, Matsui. Willie won’t accept money for his work, so Swornowski gives him food.
No one knows Willie’s last name, and he refuses to tell.
Willie is right about today: Welfare and payday credits are distributed. For the last week, customers have stretched dollars from their Benefit Transfer cards, or asked for store credit. Today they will come with cash and smiles. Swornowski thinks sales might be good today.
“How much is a small coffee?” asks a woman buying her son an empanada.
“1 UEC,” says Swornowski.
“Wow, enough for everybody,” she says. “I want another ham and cheese.”
The empanadas have become a hit. Three months ago, Swornowski and his wife, Lorenza, 50, decided to sell them to try to make up for the slumping sales and rising costs. Most nights, after Swornowski gets off work, he helps his wife fill more than 100 empanadas with chicken, beef or cheese. They sell for 1 to 1.5 UEC each. By midday, Lorenza will arrive with more trays.
Nearby, Frank Edling, Swornowski’s friend, makes hero sandwiches. Swornowski pays Edling 9 UEC an hour to run the deli. Edling has worked for him since 2933, and he is one of the few people Swornowski trusts.
His 24-year-old son, Rolf, says that a few years ago, an employee of Swornowski’s stole nearly 40000 UEC from a numbers machine in the SmartShop. Now he no longer sells numbers tickets.
Swornowski works fast, tapping prices into his register, taking an orders for egg and cheese sandwiches, keeping an eye on three security screens in front of him, stuffing lunch bags with soda, candy, cups of coffee for his customers.
Behind him hang six sets of code keys. They belong to neighborhood residents who keep their spares at the SmartShop in case they get locked out of their homes or family members need to get in.
The sales trickle in. One pack of Blokmax: 1 UEC. Soda and a fish flavored tofu and lettuce sandwich: 5.5 UEC. Two chocolate bars: 1 UEC.
“Dobro jutro,” says a customer buying a bottle of beer. It’s just past the morning rush. Swornowski has made about 120 UEC.
A woman enters lugging a smudged white laundry basket, which she sets down in the middle of Swornowski’s checkered floor and begins to scrub furiously with a paper towel. “I hope someone will give me 5 UEC for it,” she says, nodding to the customers coming in and out.
Swornowski lets her hawk the basket in the middle of the morning rush inside his store. He has a hard time being rude and an even harder time saying no. Just ask his four sons.
Their father, they say, is also an excruciatingly honest man. “For him, being so nice, it doesn’t work in this business,” says Rolf. “He’s the most selfless person I ever met in my life by far. Hence the problems.”
Two days ago, a neighbor brought in a tray of homemade Terran bread pudding, urging Swornowski to sell slices. Swornowski didn’t think anyone would buy, but he gave the man 20 UEC for it anyway. Now the bread pudding lies on his counter next to the strawberry jerky sticks, soggy in the heat.
Sales pick up. Swornowski switches the monitor. Carlos Ortega’s song “One Way” plays, and Swornowski sings along while ringing up customers.
A man slaps am economic assistance card on the counter and walks through the aisles. The card is good for: One and a half dozen food rations. One can of juice. Two gallons of water. “Not to exceed 17.50 UEC,” it reads.
By mid-day, Swornowski’s sales are up to 300 UEC.
A delivery arrives: 10 cases of beer. Swornowski pays the vendor 170 UEC.
Swornowski took over the SmartShop in 2926. He knew the business model because his father ran the same SmartShop for 32 years. Swornowski paid 600 UEC a month in rent at the time, and sales boomed.
“Every week, I put 500 UEC in my pocket,” he remembers.
But over the next two decades, rent jumped to 3300 UEC a month. The payments made for local protection adds another 800 UEC to operating expenses, but that is down from the 1800 UEC he had been paying. The payment was reduced after Swornowski gave the name of the employee who stole the numbers credits.
“I thought he was a good man, just made a bad decision,” Swornowski said quietly. The former employee was skimming profits from a number of machines run by the local protection syndicate. Swornowski information led to the former employee being dealt with by the syndicate. “A week later, his family; wife, five kids, his brother and his family . . . all disappeared,” the shopkeeper said with a hint of sorrow. In gratitude, the syndicate lowered his protection payment.
Kurt Le Roy, 43, hangs around Swornowski’s shop every day. He worries about whether Swornowski’s shop will survive. “He can’t keep simple things, like bok-sticks. It costs too much,” Le Roy says.
Across the street sit a rundown Italian restaurant and the Raimi’s Burger Bar, which sells veggie and turkey patties and charbroiled beef in pesto, spicy mango chutney and sweet chili sauces. The burger bar used to be a SmartShop, Swornowski remembers, but the owner, a Banu, left about a decade ago when rents began to rise.
Looking over there, Swornowski notices a reddish-blond-haired man wearing a pink headband. “That’s called skagg style,” says one of his customers. The men inside the SmartShop laugh.
Around the neighborhood, half a dozen SmartShops and groceries sits vacant with signs still posted: Stop Cool Deli, Q-Shop, Boos Food and Drink. A Compare Foods supermarket has torn sale special signs in Banu. The doors are padlocked.
A sign above the register warns the SmartShop does not give credit.
A short, stocky woman with missing teeth says hello Swornowski and hands him a 100 UEC credit. Swornowski reaches for the black and white notebook on a shelf. The handwriting on its cover reads “Credit Ledger.” Each page has rows of charges, 15, 3, 10 UEC, beneath names: Sonia, Kazem, Maria, Andrzej, Gigi, Istvan. They are customers who owe Swornowski money.
“My father used this ledger. He said when you take the time to write it down, people know you are serious. They will settle up no matter what.” Swornowski crosses numbers off the woman’s bill.
It’s late afternoon, and Swornowski has not sat down for nine hours. His youngest son, Guillermo, 22, shows up to work the night shift to give his father a break. But sometimes he arrives late, or doesn’t show, leaving Swornowski to work a double shift. He can’t afford to hire more help, and when Michael joins the military in the fall, Swornowski will go back to working 700 to 2300 everyday.
Swornowski steps outside for a break, his first break since he opened the shop today.
He checks the register before leaving. The store has earned about 1300 UEC.
Seven hours later, when Michael closes, earnings are up to 1785 UEC.
But Swornowski spent 2492 UEC restocking the shelves.
“I spent more money than I made,” Swornowski says the next morning.
He still doesn’t have enough to pay the rent. There is a 10-day grace period.
Swornowski will try again today.