North Williamsburg does not have any major grocery chains. What it does have, in increasing abundance, is health food stores and small, family-run markets that blend Whole Foods with your neighborhood deli. We’ll call them yuppie bodegas.
There are four such shops on Bedford Avenue between North Seventh and North Ninth streets, with another on the way, and they have much more in common then the organic, vegan fare and Ramen Noodles stocked on the shelves.
They are each owned by Palestinians, mainly from the town of al-Beireh in the West Bank region of Ramallah. Some of Williamsburg’s Palestinian grocers were strangers before they each opened shops on the same two-block stretch of Bedford Avenue. Others are related.
Nizam Abed kicked off the Palestinian, organic food movement in Williamsburg about two decades ago when he opened the neighborhood’s first health food store on Bedford Avenue between North Seventh and Eighth.
Mr. Abed used to watch Egyptian soap operas behind the cash register all day long. The shop has been shuttered for a few months, but the new owner Ayad Abu Dib, also from al-Beireh, is opening another grocery store there soon, his neighbors and future competitors report.
A pair of recently revamped, Palestinian-owned yuppie bodegas have flanked the block for the past six months or so.
Nick Ennab runs the North 7th Market, right outside the L train station steps, with a distant cousin through marriage, Bashar Ismail.
Mr. Ennab left Ramallah 15 years ago to work with his father, who owns grocery stores in Park Slope.
After a few years working for his family, he bought the Williamsburg shop (in its shabbier incarnation) from another Ramallah-born Palestinian and transformed it to feed the hordes of hungry hipsters living in the neighborhood.
His partner’s brother, Ayman, also worked there until he opened his own store, Bedford Fruits and Vegetables, on the corner of North Eighth six months ago.
A third Ismail brother owns the grungier, non-gourmet Bedford Deli and Grocery Store across the street. Ayman Ismail insists that the stores do not compete. He focuses on produce, while the North 7th Market offers freshly prepared sandwiches. Their brother’s deli seems more popular with construction workers in the neighborhood.
Besides, lately there is more than enough business to go around, said Mr. Ennab.
“There’s a lot of action here. It’s never gets boring here,” he said. “Things got slow in Park Slope sometimes.”
After two years working at the Bedford Deli and Grocery, Mahdi Matany, an Israeli-born Palestinian, decided to open a health food store next door.
His is the only shop among the four that stocks only health food now that Mr. Abed has moved back to Ramallah. Nonetheless, the business in the neighborhood has gotten a lot more competitive since he opened four years ago, “especially now that grocery stores have started to carry health food,” said Mr. Matany.
Maher Ali, a former fireman who went to elementary school with Mr. Ennab, has worked at the same spot on Seventh and Bedford for eight years, and watched the shop transition from owner to owner and into a yuppie bodega. In addition to the usual gourmet chips, $5 flavored waters and Chef Boyardee, the market sells fresh flowers, Star magazine and imported hummus.
“When I first got here it was a regular grocery store and most of our customers were Polish,” Mr. Ali recalled before the weekday lunch rush on Thursday.
Back then people in Williamsburg didn’t eat organic. Rent was two or three thousand dollars, compared to $10,000 now, he said.
A couple of years ago you didn’t see many Kifeyah—the Bedouin, black-checkered scarf transformed from a functional desert accessory into a symbol of resistance by Yasser Arafat, and lately a trendy accessory sported by hipsters from London to New York City—there either.
“You feel relaxed when you see people wearing Kifeyeh,” he said. “Like it’s not dangerous anymore.”
Surprisingly—given the media’s total, and at times willful, incomprehension of the Middle East—the Palestinian grocers we talked to say their nationality has not been much of an issue (personal or otherwise) since they started operating their own businesses in the U.S.
There are exceptions. Mr. Ennab and Mr. Ismail, of Bedford Fruits and Vegetables, both stock the New York Post, but do so reluctantly due to its anti-Arab coverage.
“If an Arab has any self-respect, they should not carry the Post,” Mr. Ismail said, but admitted he now sells the paper.
When Mr. Ismail worked at his brother’s market a block up the street, he and other employees from Ramallah got all the Palestinian shopkeepers to agree not to carry the paper. But after a month, everyone started selling it again, he said.
“We didn’t have it for three years, but after a while customers started asking for it,” Mr. Ismail said. “Some even pointed fingers at me when I explained why. Eventually my brother said, ‘What’s the point if you’re the only one doing this?’ So …” He trailed off, shrugging his shoulders.
When I first moved to Williamsburg nine months ago, I started going to Mr. Matany’s Bedford Avenue Health Food Store. There were only three grocers within walking distance of my apartment then, and he was always watching Al Jazeera on a laptop behind the counter. Having just returned from a two-year stint in Beirut, I was desperate for some Middle East news coverage.
One would think a channel represented in the U.S. sometimes as a mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden would scare customers off, but Mr. Matany said most are usually more curious than appalled.
“People want to see it and ask me where they can watch it,” he laughed. “I give them the Web site for Al Jazeera English and they come back and tell me they liked it.”