by Jordan Green
A Bhutanese refugee establishes a store to meet the needs of Himalayan immigrants in the shell of a traditional curb market on High Point’s Southside.
The signage at Daytona Discount store has been gradually coming down over the past couple months. First it was a metal panel covering half of the sign face, partially obliterating the letters. Then the second panel came off, leaving stray wires and metal casing.
The curb market shares a short block on South Main Street in High Point with two other stores: Terry’s Discount Grocery and Sonny’s Discount Grocery. Contributing to the improvised feel of the commercial district, Sonny’s lettering is rendered in red spray paint on the side of the brick building. All three stores sell items that are ubiquitous on the shelves of curb markets that serve low-income, African-American communities: beer, cigarettes, snacks and an assortment of canned food and household products.
Beyond the underutilized and deteriorating parking lots that sprawl around the stores, the 11-story Elm Towers, a public-housing community for elderly and disabled adults, dominates the skyline. Stretching west from South Main Street, what used to be the city’s industrial heart has been replaced by low-income apartment complexes. GTCC’s High Point campus is located across South Main Street, drawing students from across the city.
The Census tract that covers the Southside neighborhood is among the poorest and most racially diverse in the city, with median family income of $13,064. Slightly more than half of the population is black, while almost 20 percent is listed as Hispanic, 6.8 percent is Asian and 6.4 percent is identified as “some other race.”
Dev Bhandari, a 24-year-old Bhutanese refugee, has been operating Daytona Discount for about a month. A color flier written in Nepali with images of chatpatey, pani puri and other famous Nepali dishes that is posted on the front door advertises what the store is about to become: Himalayan Bazaar.
“It’s pretty tough to take the risk of selling all Asian food,” Bhandari said. “A lot of people in my community can’t afford to pay a lot for food. I’m still going to sell the American groceries.”
A brisk stream of people on a recent Wednesday afternoon reflected the dual customer bases that Bhandari is cultivating.
“Yo,” an African-American man said, as the door swung shut behind him.
“How are you, brother?” Bhandari greeted him.
“You got change for a ten?” the man asked.
The young merchant obliged.
Later, a trio of elderly Nepalis, a man and two women, showed up. Bhandari greeted them: “Namaste.”
In some respects, the store looks like many others, with promotional signage for Newport cigarettes, Miller High Life and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series hanging from the ceiling and adorning the walls. The coolers are stocked with King Cobra malt liquor and Mad Dog 20/20 fortified wine. Campbell’s soup, Pringles and cans of Vienna sausage fill the shelves. Flavored cigars share counter space with traditional incense.
Heralding the store’s impending transformation, Bhandari already has a selection of colorful dhaka-topi, a traditional Nepali hat that features a crease along the top from front to back, and bangles. He has orders in for Nepali rice, spices, jewelry and saris.
Bhandari’s aim for the store is to create a center of community for the Bhutanese and Nepali immigrant communities in High Point. For a demographically small population with a history of displacement, having an anchor is imperative, he said.
Bhandari’s family fled Bhutan, a small landlocked country in the Himalayan Mountains sandwiched between India and China, in 1991 when he was 1 year old because of internal discord. They wound up living in a refugee camp in Nepal for the next 18 years.
“I have never been to Bhutan,” Bhandari said. “I felt like I had no country. They didn’t give us no citizenship in Nepal.”
Unable to obtain Nepali citizenship or return to Bhutan, Bhandari’s family took the third option: resettlement abroad. World Relief High Point brought them to North Carolina in 2009. After finishing high school, Bhandari enrolled in UNCG to study finance, accounting and economics. He said he needs only a few more credits to graduate, but is taking some time off to start his new business.
As an immigrant in High Point, he threw himself into volunteer activities. He worked with refugee children, coordinating games and helping them write poems, counseled young people on the risk of HIV/AIDS, and organized soccer games through Inter-City Bhutanese Soccer. Reflecting his stature in the community, he holds the position of vice president in the Society of Bhutanese in High Point.
Bhandari said his parents provided some financial assistance and he saved his money from working since high school to start the business. Combining his studies and work, a typical day is 18 hours.
There are about 300 Bhutanese families in High Point, Bhandari said. Many of them live at East Gate Condominiums on Ardale Drive or apartment complexes on South Elm Street and Kendall Avenue — all within easy walking distance of the store.
“We have a small community,” Bhandari said. “We help when somebody dies. We collect money and pay for the funeral. I personally interpret. Some people charge to do it, but I don’t. If somebody needs to go to the DMV or to buy a car, I’ll go with them to interpret free of charge.”
Along with access to food and apparel from the home country, the store offers an additional benefit to its clientele.
“Most Bhutanese here don’t have much English,” Bhandari said. “It is easier for them if there’s someone who speaks their language.”
Taking up a new life in High Point turned out to be easier than Bhandari would have guessed.
“It came out to be better than what I expected,” he said. “There are a whole lot of challenges. If you’re on the wrong track, this place is easier to get in trouble. If you’re on the right track, there’s more opportunity.”