Photo by Marta Franco.

Cookies, sandwiches, salads: Every afternoon, neighbors and visitors stop at Tony’s Market at 24th and Hampshire to buy some food or pick up lunch at Pal’s Takeaway, inside the store.

Only a few years ago, Kassa Mehari, the store’s owner, sold mostly liquor. But three years ago, as the street was developing, Mehari decided it was time for the store to change, too. He started purchasing new products and added the sandwich takeaway. Last February he let in the light, adding windows that are nearly floor-to-ceiling.

Now, “people come all day,” he said, sitting in a spot where he can clearly see all that happens on 24th Street.

The area “is safer than before,” he said, so he felt fine opening up the closed space. But the big windows also allow people to see in from the outside, which makes the store feel less dangerous for customers. And these days there are more of them.

The improvement of corner stores as a neighborhood develops is not a random phenomenon, according to urban planners. Corner store interventions can be critical in changing neighborhoods and engaging communities, according to several surveys, including one by the groups Literacy for Environmental Justice and Public Health Law & Policy.

The report concludes that “corner stores’ emphasis on alcohol and tobacco often makes them magnets for litter, loitering, drug dealing, and prostitution.”

“It’s really a challenge promoting safety in a neighborhood where there are a lot of liquor stores,” Heather Wooten, senior planner at Public Health Law & Policy, said in a phone interview. “The rules of the game are that you can make money by selling things that are not good for the community.

“The state regulates liquor licenses and it’s a very slow process,” she added. “You cannot get rid of it overnight.”

That means that the changes merchants make on their own can be critical.

“You would be surprised how quick the improvement can be,” said James Johnson-Piett, a principal and CEO of Urbane Development, a company that works with communities in need.

On 24th Street, neighbors felt unsure about the development. For Maria Frias, the many fruit and vegetable markets mean that access to healthy food is not a problem. Safety is. “I don’t think it has changed so much,” she said in Spanish, but added that the arrival of stores owned by “güeros,” or white people, is making the area safer. “It’s better to have them on the corners rather than the gangs,” she said.

Another woman who refused to be identified but described herself as a “concerned neighbor” doubted that changes such as bigger windows could affect the neighborhood. However, she said that the opening of coffee shops does have a positive influence. Liquor stores on every corner are unlikely to disappear, she said. “People like to enjoy.”

Johnson-Piett said that changes such as the ones Mehari made at Hampshire and 24th Street go much further than just offering a wider and healthier selection of products — they also have “a positive effect in the community.”

“If the place is dynamic, if kids are around, it changes the environment,” he said. Moreover, the change of one single corner store can act as a catalyst and encourage other stores’ owners to make improvements .

“If changes are made step by step, your influence is going to be step by step,” he said. “Things that make differences don’t have to be big.”

Examples? “Having a clean, shiny floor. That doesn’t take so much effort.” Purchasing healthier options and even “organizing the store a little bit better can make a difference.”

The former owners of the liquor store on Bartlett Street at 24th — close to the Mission public library and the Buena Vista Elementary Horace Mann Middle School — cleaned the space and put up a new awning one year ago, before transferring it to the current owners this summer.

Clearly little differences, although “it seems much more neighborly now,” said Phil Lesser, interim president of the Mission Merchants Association. “Before the face-lift, it seemed to have graffiti and people hanging out around it for most of the day.”

Susan Malak also experienced a difference when she and her family decided to change the corner store they own at 896 Valencia Street just a couple of months ago.

Healthier products? Maybe not. It’s still a liquor store, but the close railings were replaced with big windows that show a fancier selection of bottles. “People don´t want cheap liquors anymore,” Malak said. They also painted and cleaned the walls.

“I’m so happy,” she said proudly. “Old neighbors appreciated we did this. It’s a lot better now.”

These improvements may not be the last: They are thinking about opening a deli in the store, just as they did five years ago at the corner of Guerrero and 19th streets. “Customers ask us to do it,” Malak said. But it will have to be step by step.

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Marta came from Zaragoza, Spain to master her English but everyone she speaks to wants to practice Spanish. After just a few months in the Mission, she already feels at home. In her free time she can be found reading books, watching movies, roller skating or just enjoying a good meal, an interesting conversation or a sunny walk around the neighborhood.

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  1. Great article. The Tony’s/Pals thing is really smart and makes me happy to see every time I go in there.

    Another thing unmentioned in the article is that when corner stores bring something unique – like Pals – to a location, it brings people in from out of the neighborhood. So, it’s like having tourist dollars flow into the hood.

  2. All we have to do is keep the Pal’s and get rid of Tony. Corner store diets are part of growing up out here and it sucks. Lets be real though, clean up a corner store, offer better products, but 8 dollar sandwiches are expensive regardless. McDonalds on 24th is the biggest and cleanest corner store in the hood. And you know they sell affordable death all day.

  3. “All we have to do is keep the Pal’s and get rid of Tony.” — It’s hard to imagine that anyone could say such a thing if they knew Kassa, the owner. That man is a ray of sunshine, a true gentleman, and is much beloved by everyone in that end of the neighborhood.

  4. Cool human-interest story.

    My liver quivered with delight when a local small non-corporate retail store of any type was welcoming and had a bulletin board present where local folks could advertise wares or events and offerings of various sorts……

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