Over the past several years, I'd wandered past Hellenic American Imports on Mission Street many, many times, never bothering to go in. Mental notes were made and promptly filed away. If I ever had the need for a Greek flag or an evil eye charm, I thought, I'd know just where to go.
After lunching with a friend in the neighborhood a few months ago, I found myself in front of the store. As I peered through the plate glass windows and past the statuary, I saw something that caught my attention-- food for sale. A sucker for interesting markets, I found myself compelled to enter.
After browsing the cheeses in the refrigerated case at the back of the store, a young woman descended a little staircase to the right to welcome me.
"Let me know if you need anything," she offered, "My name is Greece." Was she serious? About the name, not the offer of help, I mean.
"Your name is Greece?" I asked, thinking how fortunate she was to have found just the right occupation for her name.
"It's actually Griselda, but they call me Greece here."
And why not? I continued to browse, working my way over to the wines.
As I wandered a bit more, grabbing a box of Dumplings with Yeast (Loukoumades. It sounds better in Greek.) here and a can of giant beans (Gigantes) there, I recognized a man I had waited on before coming down the staircase from the office that looks down upon the store. I said hello. He introduced himself as Savas Deligiorgis, the owner of the store.
After chatting for a few minutes, he mentioned that he had some work to do for his radio program. Radio program? Savas, it turns out, has been producing the Hellenic American Broadcast-- the only Greek radio hour west of Chicago-- for the past 43 years, which is as long as he has owned the store. Journalism is a passion of his. It's what he studied in school. He then excused himself and went back upstairs into the office.
I was intrigued. I made my purchases, thumbed through some Greek VHS tapes for amusement, and left, quite glad I had decided to wander in.
When in Greece last month, I got rather hooked on taramosalata, a spread made of fish roe, oil, and bread. I remembered Savas carried the stuff, so I made a pilgrimage back to his store.
He was there, up in the office. I waved hello and was invited up. As I sat at his desk drinking Amita brand peach juice surrounded by office walls lined with photos of Savas posing with the likes of Jerry Brown, Anthony Quinn, and several Greek dignitaries, we talked about the changing demographics of the Mission. When he bought the store 43 years ago, there were still many Greek and Italian families living in the neighborhood. Now that most of them have moved away, he still serves to hold the community together through his Monday-to-Friday radio hour. Greek-relevant interviews, news, commentaries and music are all on offer. While we talked, the other half of his radio team, Tonia Demitriadis, arrived and we all chatted a bit more.
Back downstairs with Savas, I noticed some cookies dusted with powdered sugar. "Hey! What are these called again? The lady I stayed with in Santorini would make these for me." I said, excitedly, but not very gracefully.
"Kourabiethes. Take some. The one's in the box are better." I took some home and had them with my coffee, powdered sugar blown like talcum over the front of my shirt and in my beard. But they were good and worth the wiping for.
Again, I thanked him for his time and wandered the store while Greece busied herself arranging merchandise. A bin of ouzo candy wrapped in shiny metallic blue paper caught my eye. I plunged my hand in as if it were a barrel of pinto beans and hoped no one would notice. I did not purchase any candy.
I went back to the cheeses. Manouri, feta, myzithra. The back walls were lined with products I'd seen in markets on the Greek islands I'd so recently wandered. Cookies, dakos, calamari, Nescafe, and frappe shakers. It's all there. I was glad to know it.
I moved on to the non-food-related areas, contemplated buying a book or a video. I wondered how funny I might find a Greek comedy. If the phrases "thank you" or "I'm sorry" or "where is the toilet, please?" were said in a particularly hilarious fashion, it might be well worth it. Otherwise, it would be a purchase entirely lost on me. I took my cod roe, cookies, a little wine, and left.
I'll be back as soon as the roe runs out.
Hellenic American Imports
2365 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Tel: (415) 282-2237
Open Monday through Saturday from 10 am to 6 pm
The Hellenic American Broadcast airs at 8 pm Monday through Friday on KTVO- AM 1400