Convenience chain stores in the countryside replicate those in cities, but one in Gyeonggi Province is atypical in its operations. There, a warm-hearted former insurance broker tirelessly tends to a loyal customer base. Her mission is to make her store the beating heart of the community – that one familiar spot where everyone knows they will receive an extra warm welcome.
For Lee Jung-shim, the proprietor of a convenience store in Anseong, Gyeonggi Province, receiving, checking and sorting twice-daily deliveries are important daily chores. She is weathering new local competition and the COVID pandemic disruptions to make her store a welcoming and restful oasis for her rural community.
Past the city hall of Anseong, there isn’t much to see. Empty rice paddies line both sides of a two-lane highway before a reservoir finally signals a change. The town of Toheyon-ri is nearby. Here and there, a few PVC greenhouses, livestock sheds, machine repair shops and small factories spring from the flat land. They are juxtaposed by several tall residential buildings. At their base is a convenience store, the type of chain store that dots every urban neighborhood.
It’s a slight surprise to see a corporate symbol in this rural town. Nevertheless, the store and adjacent diner are a welcome sight for anyone who has craved a hot cup of coffee during the drive, only to find that not a single café exists along the way.
The tinkling of the store’s doorbell incites a robust “Welcome!” It feels like stepping into the lobby of a luxurious hotel. The space is lit in a warm, tangerine hue, and directly in front is a neatly arranged display of wines.
Employees at Lee’s convenience store are treated like permanent staff members rather than contract workers or parttimers. Consequently, they display a real sense of ownership in handling their duties and interacting with customers.
A large window fronts the diner section, affording a relaxing view of the quiet rice paddies between sips of hot coffee. They seem to be enjoying a wellearned rest and recovery after another year’s harvest. Suddenly, their barren appearance seems less cold than before.
The store is part of the nationwide eMart24 chain and one of some 40,000 convenience stores under the umbrella of Korean retailers. It’s far from the stereotypical image of small, rural stores that often have disorderly layouts and dusty products on half-empty shelves and in random piles. Manager Lee Jung-shim is expected to adhere to guidelines from the corporate head office, so without doubt the store resembles its urban cousins. She does that and then some.
The tidy shelves are crammed with a myriad of daily necessities. Cookies, instant foods, beverages and wines are a given. Here also are all the makings of a hearty meal, from an array of side dishes to generous lunchboxes and fresh produce. Then there are the Q-tips, nail clippers and countless other small goods, and many items normally only found at a standard grocery store, such as treats for pets.
“My hope is that our neighbors can find the little daily things they need close to home, without having to get in their cars and drive far away,” says Lee.
Born in 1969 in Namhae, an island county in South Gyeongsang Province, as the youngest of five siblings, Lee began working as soon as she graduated from her hometown high school, moving to Suwon to join one of her older sisters. Her first job was as a cashier at a mid-size grocery chain.
Married at just 22, Lee soon became a mother of three. Wanting to contribute more to the household income, she landed an entry-level job in the insurance industry in 2002. That began a 17-year career during which she garnered a steady series of promotions and even an award for leading her team into the top 100 (out of 1,300) nationwide.
“I didn’t know it when I was looking after the kids, but once I fully entered the workforce, I realized that I have a real knack for interfacing with customers. When I first started working in insurance it was kind of scary, but over time it occurred to me that there was no reason I couldn’t do that work as well as anyone else. I always kept my appreciation for our customers in mind. That mindset has turned out to be very helpful in running the convenience store, too.”
It all started in 2016, when Home Plus bought out the discount market and convenience store chain 365 Plus. This was also right around the time Lee was starting to feel worn out, physically and mentally. The owner of the Tohyeon-ri convenience store at the time was one of her insurance customers – and oddly enough, something about the place had always appealed to her. She kept getting the sense that if it were hers to operate, she could be successful.
She wasn’t wrong. Almost as soon as Lee took over the shop, business started to boom. It was hard work, but meeting her new customers became a source of energy. It breathed new life into her day to day.
Of course, there were challenges, too. Lee seemingly became a victim of her own success as another high-profile convenience chain store opened nearby. The tinkling bell that announced her customers’ arrival began to ring less and less frequently. She was disheartened, but she kept despair at bay, persevering instead and working harder than ever. And eventually, perhaps sensing this sincerity and commitment, the very neighbors whose visits had fallen off started to come back.
When Home Plus dropped out of the convenience store business in 2021, Lee switched her store to eMart24. She also took over the diner next door and expanded the space to be more than twice its original size, which meant higher property costs. If she was thinking of profits alone, there would have been no need to expand the store, but Lee had her heart set on something else altogether.
Lee’s typical day is an elongated grind. It consists of two work shifts, from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. and from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. In between, she rests and takes care of her granddaughter.
At the store, Lee checks the inventory and sends resupply orders to the head office twice a day. Otherwise, she can be found cleaning, stocking shelves and tending to customers. The time in the store, she says, is enjoyable and seems to pass quickly. The hardest part of the day is getting out of bed. The four-hour gap between leaving her store after midnight and returning before dawn means persistent sleep deprivation.
Lee wipes down a table placed at her storefront window. She wants her customers to enjoy a restful view while eating and drinking. Recent COVID-19 restrictions on eating in make her long for pre-pandemic times.
A major change came after her takeover. “It always felt like a bit of a shame that the store was so small. Customers would buy their lunchboxes and then have to eat them outside, because we had no indoor seating. I wanted to provide a space to eat that would be cool and refreshing in the summer and warm and cozy in the winter. I knew expanding to twice the size certainly wouldn’t mean twice the amount of business – but still, that was my dream.”
There’s very little difference between the diner section and any destination café in a popular tourist town. The high-grade espresso machine, normally heard hissing and gurgling in specialty coffee shops, draws the eye. This is a far cry from the usual onetouch capsule machines typically found in a convenience store.
“Would you like a latte? I make them myself.”
She steps up to the espresso machine, grinds the beans and tamps the grounds. Then comes the familiar hiss and cloud from steaming milk. The latte is gorgeous, decorated with a heart, and the foam clings to my lip, just right. No wonder. Lee is a certified first-class barista.
At this point, it seems clear that this space of Lee’s is more than just a simple convenience store. What she truly treasures, however, is something else entirely: the people who make the space possible.
Lee wants her employees to take pride in their workplace and treats them accordingly. Full benefits and paid time off are a matter of course, with modest but regular holiday and retention bonuses.
The employees, in turn, oversee the shop with managerial commitment. The result is that, no matter when you swing by, it feels as though you’re being welcomed by an owner rather than an indifferent employee on a part-time gig. And with the workers so happy, the customers find their spirits lifting too, exiting the store with a new spring in their step.
From time to time, there have even been customers who lend a hand. Neighbors who farm have shared their produce, and customers who work orchards have brought whole baskets of fruit. Gifts like these are always divided amongst the employees.
In this way, Lee’s store really is the neighborhood’s beating heart, its meeting hall/water cooler. The elderly grandmother who looks after her ailing husband; the young mother with an invalid son; the farmer just in from fertilizing his fields; the immigrant neighbor in his grease-stained coveralls. When these customers enter, announced by that bright, tinkling bell, Lee becomes sister, daughter or friend – or when the customers are children, an auntie.
On my way back home, Lee’s latte, so full of heart, keeps my own warm for a very long time.