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Full shelves at a local corner store in Boyle Heights.

Editor’s note: since this article was originally published, a new order has gone into effect requiring customers and employees to wear face masks inside the businesses.

By Erick Galindo/LAist

Originally published on March 26, 2020

Ivette Serrano spent part of last Friday morning working the register at the Vallarta in Sylmar, the Latino supermarket chain’s flagship store.

“We did get a big shipment of rice this morning,” Serrano said. “A lot of people were very happy to find rice and toilet paper and water bottles here at the store.”

Things are much more orderly now, Serrano assured me. There are limits on items and the number of people who can come into the store at the same time. And the shelves have mostly been replenished since a panicked run depleted some of the Vallarta locales in affluent neighborhoods of Sylmar, Downey and Burbank.

Toilet paper is in high demand across Los Angeles but at local corner store you can still find toilet paper being sold by the roll.

When I talked to Serrano, she was getting ready to jump on Univision to assure Vallarta’s target audience that there is no need to panic buy. “We’ve restructured. We’ve refocused all of our efforts to ensure that we have these products coming on a continuous basis,” she explained.

She also assuaged one of my biggest fears. “I was ringing up Peruvian beans earlier, so we do have beans,” she said. Pandemic or no pandemic, a life without beans would, for me, be the hellish apocalypse most of Twitter likes to propagate.

Serrano is part of Vallarta’s coronavirus taskforce, a necessity for Latino supermarket chains that remain on the frontlines of providing food during the pandemic. They aren’t alone. Carnicerías, liquor stores, tienditas, even gas station markets, have long been the heart of many neighborhoods in Los Angeles.

These mom and pop shops have played a key role keeping their shelves stocked and neighborhoods fed in places like Eastside Long Beach, HiFi, West Adams and Exposition Park, where my friend and fellow writer Cesar Hernández lives.

A plethora of fresh veggies at Palomina Meat Market in Boyle Heights.

While people were turning Costco into the Wild West, Hernández was finding everything he needed at his local tiendita. Hernández said it wasn’t just about avoiding massive lines and empty shelves. He wanted to shop where and how he normally does because it was important to maintain some sense of normalcy and keep “the neighborhood economic ecosystem intact.”

“In the midst of all that’s going on, tienditas remain an anchor in communities of color, keeping families fed and stocked even during a worldwide pandemic,” Hernández said.

The ampm near Olympic and Soto is almost always cracking, according to Anthony Sánchez, who lives in a nearby apartment complex.

“We don’t really have time to mess around with no ‘rona panic. Plus, I don’t have a car so I just stroll over here like every other day and pick out what I need,” he said. Sánchez grabbed a large gallon of water, some bananas, a roll of toilet paper and some packaged sandwiches.

“Corner markets are great if you don’t need a hundred rolls of toilet paper,” he added.

Cuts of meat at a small corner market in Boyle Heights. 

Gina Anderson, a car service driver, said she’s been shopping at the same butcher shop in her Pico-Union neighborhood for years. “I knew they got me. Even when I saw the chaos on TV at Costco. I knew my shop had me covered,” she said.

I gave her five stars although she refused to tell me where the shop was. “I don’t want a bunch of people pulling up and running my spot. That’s how it starts,” she said. “It” being gentrification.

Another writer friend of mine, Lexis-Olivier Ray, said he has done most of his pandemic shopping at his local corner liquor store. “I go there pretty regularly, regardless, so it’s still been my go-to these whole past few weeks,” he said.

Whatever he can’t find at the liquor store, Ray gets at the Numero Uno Market in MacArthur Park. “Same with the liquor store, I just can always count on them. I hadn’t been grocery shopping in weeks, before the crisis. I went to a few other places and they were completely sold out. But when I went to Numero Uno they were completely in stock,” he said.

A sign at a local corner store in Boyle Heights asks that people stay 6 feet apart.

Ray loves going to these neighborhood spots because they foster a sense of community and you form a bond with your local shop owner.

“Slowly the person behind the counter becomes your friend,” he said. “They’re just good people that actually care. And there’s the fact that it’s good to be friends with a person that has a store full of liquor.”

This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2020 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.

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