Conversations in Korea: Mr. K the Convenience Store Owner

I don’t get why people read blogs. I don’t know why you would want to read my thoughts when you have perfectly fine thoughts of your own. Or if you’re going to read someone else’s thoughts, at least make it someone worthwhile. Like Mark Twain.

But you do read my stuff and I’m thankful for that, so I want to make it worth your time. I was thinking about what I would like to read in a blog and I got an idea. You see, blogs are a bit voyeuristic. Like a personal diary you found lying on the ground. Or like people watching at the mall.

I used to do that when I was in high school. I’d sit in the mall and watch people and think “I wonder what a day in his life is like.” I want to know what it’s like to be a taxi driver for a day. I want to know what it’s like to be a Walmart greeter. That’s what I want from a blog, so that’s what I’m going to write.

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I’m going to start doing little interviews for this blog. No names or pictures. It’s not a biography. It’s a day-in-his-shoes-ography.

I won’t do this for every future post, but often enough.

For the first one, I interviewed the owner of a twenty-four hour convenience store in Korea. We’ll call him Mr. K. I made up that name. “K” because he lives in Korea.

Conversations in Korea: Mr. K the Convenience Store Owner

We had just finished our interview. As we sat watching the first real snowfall of the winter from the coffee shop window, he told me, “You know my part-timer? The young girl who works at my store? She will achieve her dream next month. She will save one hundred thousand dollars.”

“Sorry, a hundred thousand?” I spoke slowly. I was sure he either confused his English numbers or was speaking in Korean Won instead of US dollars. A hundred thousand Korean won is roughly a hundred dollars.

“Yes, a hundred thousand.”

I wrote the number down to make sure nothing was getting lost in translation. “The girl who works part time in your convenience store saved a hundred thousand dollars in seven years? Not won, but dollars. How?”

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“Yes. She was in eleventh grade when I hired her. She gave up on going to university. I told her ‘You listen to my advice. Save your money. Do not buy clothes. Do not meet your friends. Just save your money and you can achieve your dream.”

Mr. K owns a convenience store down the road from my apartment. Convenience stores are the lifeblood of Korea. You don’t realize how, well, convenient they are until you move away from here. 7-11. CU. Buy The Way. 365 Plus. No matter where you are in the city, you’re guaranteed to see three of them. One to your left, one to your right, and one straight across the street. Imagine a world with a 7-11 on the corner of every neighborhood. It’s not high quality, but where else can you get milk when it’s two in the morning and you want a bowl of cereal? It’s beautiful.   

Mr. K speaks English very well, so I sat down with him to talk about what it’s like to run one of these convenience stores in Korea. This side story about one of his longest term employees came as a surprise after the interview had finished.

“When she started working here, she made three thousand won (roughly $3 USD, which we’ll use from now on for convenience) an hour and only worked a few hours a week,” he told me. “She saved two thousand dollars after her first year. She showed it to me and we were proud. But then she needed braces and used all her money. The next year she saved three thousand dollars. Then her father needed surgery and she used all her money again. Now she makes six dollars an hour. Another employee quit and she asked for his hours. She works many hours now.”

He continued, “So I said to her, ‘Don’t tell anyone how much you save. Don’t tell friends. Don’t tell family. You just save.’ And she did. She works twelve hours a day, seven days a week,” he told me. “She doesn’t need food, she can eat in the store. She doesn’t need a car, she walks a short time to the store. She doesn’t need to buy new shoes, she’s just in the store all day. She lives with her parents and just saves and saves. She doesn’t even have a cell phone. If her friends want to see her, they must come to the store and see her.” 

But he still refers to her as his “part timer.” I’m not sure what the distinction of being a part timer means out here in Korea.

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He told me, “She spent no money for the last five years and achieved her dream. In a few months, she will have saved a hundred thousand dollars.”

From the very start, the whole interview went in a different direction than I expected. I wanted to know funny stories about how 24 hour convenience store employees entertained themselves during the slow hours of the night. I wanted to know what they thought about the strange customers who walk in at two in the morning to buy toenail clippers and a bottle of vodka. But I got a different story.

The interview derailed after my very first question. I asked, “Are the night hours slow? What do you do during those hours?”

“Usually my part timers work in those hours.”

“But you never worked through the night hours before?”

He thought for a moment. “I didn’t know anything about convenience stores when I first opened this shop. I was an import/exporter in USA. But my friend owns the building my store is in. He told me to not spend time in USA. He said I should come back to Korea and own a convenience store.”

“The first two days, I had no part timer. I worked all day and night by myself. I thought, ‘I don’t know why I have to do like this.’ Finally I hired a part timer. I walked to the bank and I felt like my legs were, um…” he shook his arms to demonstrate how wobbly his legs were. His legs felt like jello. I believe that’s the phrase he was looking for to describe how he felt after working forty eight hours straight.

He could finally go home at night after hiring someone to work through it. But this created a new problem. He finished work at midnight and started at eight in the morning. And he lived an hour and a half away. “When can I sleep?” he asked me.

After a month of commuting every night, he took a sleeping bag to work and found some cardboard boxes to throw on the ground in the small employee room at the back of the store. He sleeps there through the night–every night, because he works every day. He told me he only goes home two days a year during harvest and spring festivals.

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Here’s his schedule now. He wakes up at eight, checks his inventory, and orders items he needs. At ten, he has breakfast and then goes to the bank to deposit cash. By noon, he’s finished his business and takes a nap on his box bed for a couple hours. His employee finishes work at four, so he works the cashier until about seven. Another employee starts work at seven, and his store’s inventory delivery arrives around the same time. He finishes inventory by eight and has dinner. After dinner, he takes a rest on his box bed again until about ten. He gets up at ten to receive another delivery. He stocks his store and gets to sleep a little after midnight. Then he wakes up at eight and does it again.

As we walked back to the store after the interview, I didn’t know what to think of this unassuming man in his vest which matches the color of his store’s  logo. He sleeps on a pile of cardboard boxes every night, but he might be doing very well for himself. He told me he lives in Gangnam, which is a lot like the Hollywood of Seoul. Of course, you can find cheap living in Hollywood if you’re willing to bend your standards. But the point is he might be doing very well for himself. I hope he is. He’s a good guy and he deserves it.

The thing is, even if he was doing very well, you’d never know. He would just sleep on his box bed, work seven days a week, never buy new shoes, and save and save and save.

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Pictures: Melissa Beth Rose 
Words: Michael Smit


4 thoughts on “Conversations in Korea: Mr. K the Convenience Store Owner

  • I know exactly who you’re talking about. I lived in Hanam from 2007 to 2008 and he was awesome. Long talks with him outside the store. He taught me to count in hangul. He was just really cool and welcoming to the whole ex-pat community, and I see he still is. Always had a free coffee or something for us. Nice interview. Carry on

    • That’s him! By the way, I mentioned your name to him last time I was there. He remembered you immediately, before I could even say your last name. He’s a good guy.

  • Makes me nostalgic fof Seoul. They are EVERYWHERE. But, doesn’t sound like living or even alive.
    I appreciate your narative style, flows, and I know this guy now & the “full partimer”. Think either has any comfort, Future or only the past & bank accounts?

    • It’s tough to say. I wouldn’t choose that life, but then again I don’t have a hundred thousand dollars in my savings account and I sure could use it.

      I posted this story on Reddit, and an insightful poster reminded everyone of the incredible economic change South Korea went through in the last fifty years. A Korean of Mr. K’s age has seen hard times in Korea, and I’m sure that influences his work ethic and values.

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