Joo Han, the son of Korean immigrants, runs a Manhattan produce store that looks much as it did when his parents opened it a generation ago, working endless hours to forge a new life, banana by banana, milk carton by milk carton.
But the shop that paved his parents’ path to the middle class can barely cover the rent today. Mr. Han is thinking of closing or selling the business — a step that two nearby Korean grocers are also considering, and that hundreds others have already taken.
For decades, Korean greengrocers have embodied a classic New York type — the immigrant entrepreneur — and become as much a staple of city life as the yellow cab and the pretzel vendor. Spike Lee and Jerry Seinfeld found early inspiration in them. The Rev. Al Sharpton led boycotts against them; Rudolph W. Giuliani’s first mayoral campaign used them as a key symbol.
Now, they are on the wane.
“If you come back next year,” Mr. Han said halfway through a 12-hour shift at his Upper Broadway store, “I might not be here.”
Koreans still dominate the small-grocery business in New York; the Korean Produce Association estimates that they own 70 percent of the city’s stores. But their ranks are thinning as they face the same forces that threaten all sorts of mom-and-pop businesses: rising rents, increased competition from online and corporate rivals, and more scrutiny from city agencies that impose fines.
The stores are also succumbing to the same impulse that prompted Mom and Pop to open them in the first place: the desire to see their children do much, much better.
Despite his pride in his family’s enterprise, Mr. Han, 42, is adamant that his two teenage sons not take up the business. “When they get bad grades, my wife says, ‘You want to work in a fruit store all your life?’ ” he said.
There were some 2,500 Korean groceries in 1995, said Pyong Gap Min, a Queens College sociologist who has studied the industry. By 2005, that number had fallen to about 2,000, he said, and it has continued to slide.
Service businesses like nail salons and dry cleaners have become more attractive than retail to Korean entrepreneurs, Professor Min said. “Small stores cannot survive,” he said. “It’s over.”
The Korean-American Grocers Association of New York has about half as many active members as the nearly 600 it had a decade ago, and its president, Chong Sik Lee, says corner stores will eventually have to expand into supermarkets or close.
“In 10 years, there will be no more Korean mom-and-pop stores,” Mr. Lee said.
The tradition began in the 1970s, when good produce could be hard to find, even in some affluent neighborhoods. Korean immigrants began opening fresh-fruit-and-vegetable shops — and quickly established a quintessential ethnic employment niche, as Filipinos did in nursing and Afghans did in chicken frying.
Today, one Korean grocery on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn has been replaced by a Peruvian-owned butcher shop; on Webster Avenue in the Bronx, a veteran grocer is selling her store for whatever she can get.
“Many, many people closed,” said Eun Sook Maeng, 52, a Korean grocer in Flatbush who has contemplated selling. “Everybody is leaving.”
Instead of taking over the businesses when their parents retire, as some Italian- and Jewish-Americans did generations ago, the children of Koreans are finding work far from the checkout counter, in law firms, banks and hospitals. And parents insist on that, Mr. Lee said.
“They want their children to have a higher position,” said Mr. Lee, who shelved his dreams of studying philosophy to run a grocery, and now owns a supermarket in Flushing, Queens.
For years, he visited the Hunts Point wholesale market in the Bronx before dawn, and worked grueling shifts with little help. “I don’t want my children to go through the same thing,” he said.
His daughter, Lina, a Boston University law student, would be happy to see the link break between Koreans and fresh fruit. “I think it’s about time that it does fade away,” she said. “It’s more of a first-generation job.”
Fewer Koreans are immigrating to the United States — 4,600 arrived last year, compared with 31,600 in 1988 — and they are focusing more on service or professional jobs, Professor Min said.
Immigrants from South Asia, Latin America and especially the Middle East are moving into the grocery trade, but no new group predominates, Mr. Lee said.
Still, newcomers are drawn to selling produce for the same reasons Koreans were: The business requires relatively little English or specialized experience.
Why Koreans flocked to the sector is largely a story of a trend feeding itself — the original wave of Korean grocers offered jobs and advice to new immigrants, who then opened shops of their own, Professor Min said.
Koreans often focused on minority neighborhoods where supermarkets were rare. That helped revitalize some areas, but also led to racial tensions, most fiercely in 1990 when black demonstrators boycotted the Family Red Apple store on Church Avenue in Brooklyn, saying the owners had been hostile toward them. Mr. Giuliani pointed to the boycotts as evidence of the city’s downward spiral under his rival, Mayor David N. Dinkins.
Mr. Han, the Upper West Side grocer, grew up stocking shelves in the same store, at Broadway and 93rd Street, that his parents opened in the late 1970s. It became something of a homegrown employment agency.
“Four of my uncles went into the same business,” Mr. Han said. “And that’s not counting all the friends we call uncle.”
Today, those friends and relatives have retired or taken easier jobs. Mr. Han and his wife, Jenny, still mind the store — ice cream to the left, tomatoes and apples by the door.
Mr. Han, who studied at the School of Visual Arts but took over the store after his mother fell ill, is not proud to find himself among the second-generation Korean grocers. Whole Foods, Fresh Direct and pharmacy chains have cut into his profits, he said. The fruit carts that City Hall has helped proliferate, including one across Broadway from his store, undercut his prices.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would have sold the business 10 years ago,” Mr. Han said.
He is already nostalgic. When he thinks of his parents, he pictures them behind the counter. “This store did a lot for us,” he said. “It gave us everything we wanted, everything we could hope for.”
“But,” he added, “maybe it’s time for me to move on.”
NY Times Eunji Jang contributed reporting