80-Year-Old Fujiya Market: A Piece of L.A. History
Among the potato chips, soda and lotto tickets at Fujiya Market, you'll find aisles stocked with slabs of fresh tuna, daikon radish, tinned mackerel, ponzu, furikake, natto and a dozen varieties of soy sauce. Located at Clinton and Virgil, a block south of Melrose, Fujiya looks like a typical corner store -- unassuming, a little down at the heels, its sign faded by the blasting sunlight -- but the 80-year-old market is one of the last reminders that this neighborhood was once so thoroughly dominated by Japanese-Americans it was known as J-Flats.
"This [neighborhood] was the first stop for many Japanese people when they came here," says co-owner June Tani.
Fujiya Market is the kind of neighborhood store where red Hawaiian sea salt shares shelf space with American junk food, where the owners still deliver groceries to a handful of elderly clients, where regulars come to socialize, not just shop. In a city often bemoaned for its impermeable car-centric lifestyle, Fujiya Market is an outpost of neighborliness, as much a social center as a store. After 80 years in business, Tani and her business partner Wayne Kohatsu plan to close Fujiya in the next few months.
Fujiya Market was opened in 1932, reportedly by a man named Hoshizaki. During World War II, when Japanese-Americans were interned in concentration camps, a friend of the owner reportedly stored the equipment. After the war, the market was reopened by Richard Izumi, who operated it for 50 years. Details are sketchy; even Tani isn't sure of the precise nature of the events.
Tani, 58, and Kohatsu, 52, began working at the market in the 1970s. They bought out Izumi in 1992 and have been running it ever since, even as the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood, tucked between East Hollywood and Silver Lake, has changed.
A third-generation Angeleno who lives near the store, Tani says that during the neighborhood's heyday as a hub for Japanese-Americans (which she estimates was 30 to 40 years ago), the area had at least three Japanese markets, several Japanese restaurants and a Japanese community center.
As Japanese-Americans residents died off or moved to other neighborhoods, successive waves of immigration brought Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Koreans, Filipinos and other groups to the area. Young professionals began moving into refurbished vintage apartments. Still, a cadre of loyal clients remained.
"I still have a lot of older Japanese customers," Tani says. "We don't advertise, but we deliver groceries to them. A lot of people come here because they have nowhere else to go. They would jokingly call it Stroke Market."
Tani says the final blow came a couple months ago when the store lost its liquor license. Though alcohol had never amounted to a huge portion of the store's inventory, Tani was proud of the sake selection. She has considered transforming all or part of Fujiya Market into a takeaway food operation, but after working seven days a week for 20 years without a vacation, she seems ready to move on.
"If I weren't retiring, if I were younger, I would do that upgrade," Tani says. "I'd like to sell the whole thing. In a sick way, I'll probably miss working seven days a week."
Follow Squid Ink at @LAWeeklyFood and check out our Facebook page. Follow the author at @ElinaShatkin or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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