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On a frigid Monday morning in late December, Jolie Noguchi leads me through Pacific Mercantile Co. in Sakura Square, a grocery store her family has owned for nearly 77 years. It’s 7:30 a.m. and the shop’s doors won’t open to customers for another hour and a half. Jolie walks me past refrigerator cases filled with containers of fresh miso and colorful cellophane-wrapped logs of kamaboko (steamed fish cakes). We pass by shelves neatly stacked with a kaleidoscopic array of instant udon, ramen, and yakisoba noodles, wrapped in compact single-serving packages. As we wander, Jolie cheerfully gives me a rundown of the different types of osechi, the foods traditionally eaten during the upcoming Japanese New Year.
While Jolie explains the ritual of eating sweet black beans in odd numbers for good luck, her daughter Alyssa, sister-in-law Cindi, and other Pacific Mercantile staff members work to the tune of softly humming fluorescent lights, unboxing packages of dried kombu and nori, glossy rice crackers, and rounds of mochi (Japanese rice cakes) and tidily arranging them on the shelves. The busy New Year holiday season is the only time Pacific Mercantile carries fresh mochi manufactured by Sacramento-based Japanese confectionery Osaka-Ya, one of hundreds of vendors Jolie’s family has worked with for decades to fill its vast inventory of groceries and gifts. The market sells everything from sushi-grade fish and fresh bok choy to more than 100 types of tea imported from across Asia, not to mention dishware and home decor.
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Pacific Mercantile, which was established in 1944 by Jolie’s maternal grandfather, George Inai, was first located on Larimer and 20th streets but moved to its current location at 1925 Lawrence Street in 1973, following the initiation of Denver’s Skyline Urban Renewal Project in 1967. That plan to transform the city’s center resulted in the demolition and partial redevelopment of 27 blocks of Lower Downtown, and in turn, the displacement of many Japanese-owned businesses like Inai’s, a large concentration of which inhabited the area between 19th and 20th streets from Lawrence to Blake. As a result, Japanese American community members founded Sakura Square—a one-block plaza bordered by Larimer, Lawrence, 19th, and 20th streets—as a cultural hub and haven for the businesses that had been forced to relocate. The complex encompasses the 74-year-old Tri-State/Denver Buddhist Temple, 199-unit Tamai Tower Apartments, a garden, and commercial space. Pacific Mercantile was one of Sakura Square’s seven original tenants, and the only one that remains.
“There used to be a nine-block radius of Japanese businesses, and now it’s all within one block,” Jolie says. The 62-year-old remembers now-shuttered businesses that once made the area home, like Akebono Restaurant, Mandarin Cafe, 20th Street Cafe, Kyoto Restaurant, and Granada Fish Market. “We were such a tight-knit family,” she says. “When one goes away, it is just heartbreaking.”
In 2017, Jolie and her brothers, Kyle and Keith Nagai, took ownership of Pacific Mercantile after their mother, Suzanne, died. That same year, Jolie’s daughter Alyssa left her work in fashion merchandising to help the family navigate the future of the store—which now faces a second redevelopment.
About Four miles south of Pacific Mercantile, on an unseasonably warm afternoon in mid-January, Mimi Luong is managing a nonstop stream of shoppers at Truong An Gifts. Two customers peruse a display packed with grinning Buddha statues in every shape, size, and color imaginable while Mimi rings up a handful of crimson-and-gold Lunar New Year decorations for one patron and fields questions from another about the contents of a box of ginseng tea. Truong An is a 5,800-square-foot shop that holds a maze of wall-to-wall shelves crammed with more than 75,000 statues, plants, trinkets, articles of clothing and jewelry, medicines, herbs, snacks, beauty products, and other items imported from across Asia. Mimi, who runs the business with her mother, Phung (pronounced Fawn), and husband, Michael Ye, moves effortlessly from task to task—the result of working in the gift shop for most of her life.
Truong An Gifts is situated within Far East Center on South Federal Boulevard, a red-roofed, timeworn commercial complex built by Mimi’s father, Thanh, and his two brothers, Thong and Neil. In 1975, Thanh and Thong were part of a group of 19 members of the Luong family who escaped the turbulence of postwar Vietnam by moving to Denver, where Neil was living while studying at the University of Colorado Boulder and where Mimi’s great aunt was living. “All of my aunts, uncles, everybody came to Colorado,” she says. “They had to leave everything they had behind. My grandpa owned a bank in Vietnam, so he was really successful. But because the communists were taking over, he had to flee.”
After he arrived, Thanh worked as a stocker at King Soopers and eventually saved enough to open two Vietnamese grocery stores in Westwood and Aurora, in 1977 and 1979, respectively. But he and his brothers were deeply homesick, a longing that spurred them to construct a complex of immigrant-owned shops, restaurants, and other businesses that would remind them of what they left behind. In the early 1980s, they acquired a loan and permission from the city of Denver to develop the plot of land where Far East Center now stands, and which still houses 22 businesses. The Luongs chose the name Far East Center to ensure the complex would represent all Asian countries—not just Vietnam—and hosted its grand opening in 1987.
Thanh and Phung, who had her own video and gift shop (an “Asian Blockbuster,” Mimi says) in south Denver, moved their respective businesses into the complex and managed them together. Thanh merged his two stores into what is now known as Little Saigon Market, which the couple eventually sold to new owners. Thong died in the 1994, and Thanh and Neil have retired, leaving the management of the Far East Center property and Truong An Gifts to Phung and Mimi. The women—like Pacific Mercantile’s Jolie and Alyssa Noguchi—are determined to preserve what their family has built. “I feel like the store—and Far East Center itself—is my heart,” Mimi says. “A lot of people buy buildings for investments, but this one started from my parents’ sweat.”
The Far East Center and Sakura Square complexes have remained relatively unchanged since their construction, but a significant transition is coming to the latter. In 2017, Sakura Square LLC, the for-profit entity that owns and manages the plaza’s office and retail spaces, parking facilities, and Tamai Tower Apartments, began gradually planning a redevelopment of Sakura Square. (The LLC is owned by the Sakura Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to celebrate Japanese and Japanese American culture and heritage and sustain the Tri-State/Denver Buddhist Temple.) At press time, Gary Yamashita, CEO of the LLC and executive director of the foundation, could only disclose select details about the project, because plans were still in preliminary stages and had been delayed, in part, by the COVID-19 pandemic. He did say the project will include a new Buddhist temple and community center, and when construction on the plaza begins in late 2023 at the earliest, Sakura Square’s current tenants will have to find new homes for at least three years.
Jolie doesn’t know where Pacific Mercantile will resettle while Sakura Square is being rebuilt, but she plans to return to and remain in the plaza long term. For her, maintaining the store’s location is about preserving the legacy of her grandfather. Inai immigrated to California from Tokushima, Japan, around the age of 20, eventually owning a grocery store in Sacramento before being imprisoned at an internment camp at the onset of World War II. After the war, Inai and his family joined many other Japanese Americans in moving to Colorado at the invitation of Governor Ralph Carr, who was known for his support of that community in the early 1940s. “Without Governor Carr, we wouldn’t be here,” Jolie says. “He was the only [Western] governor that welcomed Japanese Americans into his state.”
In fact, Jolie says, her grandfather credited Carr for helping him start the grocery store—and deterring him from calling it Nippon Market, as Inai had intended. Carr advised that lingering postwar animosity toward people of Japanese descent would be prohibitive to the growth of the new business, and so, instead, Inai named the store Pacific Mercantile, a nod to his connection to the Pacific Coast. A bust of Carr has stood in Sakura Square’s garden since 1976 as a tribute to the governor’s support.
Jolie has made peace with the idea of Sakura Square’s impending redevelopment, due in large part to the LLC’s efforts to involve Pacific Mercantile in the planning process and preserve the complex’s status as a cultural and community hub. That was not always the case. “When I first heard, I was scared to death,” she says. “I cried. I was afraid we would lose everything and not be able to carry on our grandfather’s legacy.” Which is yet another reason why she’s relieved to have Alyssa by her side, running the store. Jolie says the 29-year-old, who will one day be a fourth-generation owner of the market, has been an asset to the operation since her grandmother died, particularly with restructuring Suzanne Nagai’s old-fashioned bookkeeping system, hunting for temporary storefront locations, and navigating increased online grocery sales. Says Alyssa: “I can’t give up this 76-year-old business.”
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Truong An Gifts closed to in-person shopping, causing a drop in revenue, particularly because Mimi and Phung struggled with online sales without a point-of-sale (POS) system to track transactions. The store’s overwhelming inventory would require at least 75,000 scannable bar codes, making the switch to a POS system painfully time-consuming; currently, all items are rung up manually on a cash register. Truong An relied on curbside or by-appointment pickups and Facebook Marketplace sales for a couple of months, reopening for in-person shopping in May 2020. To draw in new customers, Mimi launched 2021 Lunar New Year–themed gift boxes filled with decorative items, sweets, and coupons from partnering Asian restaurants, a successful program she plans to continue throughout the year with other wares, like Korean beauty products and Asian snacks.
Culture and community are at the heart of Mimi’s plans for the future of Far East Center. For 32 years, the Luong family has hosted Denver’s largest annual Lunar New Year celebration in the complex’s parking lot, an affair that was canceled in 2021, but which Mimi looks forward to reviving. She wants to bring back the popular night market Truong An held with the support of Denver Streets Partnership during the summer of 2019, and the complex’s Mid-Autumn Festival, too. “We just want to share our culture,” she says. “I want to bring the Asian community together.”
At Pacific Mercantile, online sales increased about 20 percent during the spring and summer of 2020, Alyssa says, but most of its regular customers prefer shopping in person, and many insisted on doing so despite the health risks. She’s nervous and excited to move into a fully refurbished space after the redevelopment, and has other plans, too, from revamping the Pacific Mercantile website to downsizing its inventory to focus on Japanese products, emulating the Pacific Northwest grocery chain Uwajimaya. “For my mom and my uncles and family members before them, the store was passed down from the previous generation,” she says. “I’m scared to maybe do it by myself someday or not be as successful. I never want to drive it into the ground.”
Jolie isn’t worried about that. “Alyssa’s grandpa and grandma are going to be very proud of her. And I won’t be retiring anytime soon,” says Jolie, who adds that her grandfather and mother worked until the days they died, at age 101 and 89, respectively. “I told my daughter that I’m not going anywhere.”