Finding Solace and Sardines at The 99 Cents Only Store
There was always a feeling of limitless potential at the 99 Cents Store.
The walk went like this: We cut through the apartment building’s parking lot to turn onto San Fernando, which stretched on forever into the distance and between the hills. We passed by the Armenian bakery first. If we ever walked by while the door was open, we would catch a puff of warm air and the scent of freshly baked lavash. We knew we were close when we passed by two strip malls separated by an auto body shop. At the time, these strip malls housed a Laundromat, a sushi spot, a 7-Eleven, a nail salon, a tattoo parlor, and other small businesses among an ACE Cash Express, where I would eventually cash my first-ever paycheck.
The steeple of our 99 Cents Store would slowly become more prominent as we continued on. It was impossible to miss the bright blue rooftop and awnings that framed the giant 99¢ sign at the front of the store.
The building seemed almost religious, standing majestically on the corner of San Fernando and Sonora, one of the busiest intersections in our neighborhood. Before ownership put up magenta window coverings, merchandise displayed behind the glass lost its color over time, and I loved tracking the slow fade from vibrant to pastel across the weeks and months.
Inside, we were immediately hit with air conditioning and the strong scent of laundry detergent and shampoo, the most fragrant items the store had to offer. From there, it was simply a question of going left or right. Left meant diving into the material goods section, where we’d wander through tools, kitchen utensils, or school supplies. To the right, we’d get lost among the foods: Granny Goose potato chips, knock-off Hot Cheetos, canned fish, and every type of gummy candy imaginable. More often than not, we opted for the right, gravitating toward the canned foods aisle with all the dinner possibilities ahead of us. There was canned tuna, which my mom crisped up with fish sauce in a pan to serve over rice. Vienna sausages were simply halved and browned in a pan until they met the same fate. Canned sardines in tomato sauce were warmed in a small pot and scooped onto a toasted baguette for lunch.
The 99 Cents Store filled a big, gaping hole for us during our first few years in America. We had no idea where anything was, but we knew where the 99 Cents Store was. It was where we got our underwear, toiletries, toys, school supplies, and so much more before we found out about Chinatown, before we even heard about Jons, a grocery store just a few blocks beyond the 99 Cents Store. Most importantly, it was where we got our food. Not knowing the city, and without access to familiar ingredients, my mom did her best with what the 99 Cents Store had to offer even before it started to sell produce. Boxed flan became a treat for special occasions. Anything canned on rice became an adventure for us.
More formally known as the 99 Cents Only Store, the chain was founded in 1982 by Dave Gold, who started out selling bottles of wine for ninety-nine cents at his liquor store. With over two hundred stores scattered throughout California, Texas, Arizona, and Nevada, the 99 Cents Only Stores are a lifeline for so many people who are immigrants, poor, or both. They’re able to offer lower prices because they sell lower-quality items. With reports of toxic chemicals in their food products and high levels of heavy metals in their toys, the 99 Cents Store isn’t exactly a local farmer’s market. But it’s what we could afford, and it was an accessible option for our carless family. When considering the creams we’ve used on our skin or foods we’ve eaten, I can’t help but worry if our dependency then, and my parents’ continued dependency now, will haunt us later. But the 99 Cents Store and shops similar to it are complicated fixtures in the lives of those who rely upon them for survival. While they pose a risk to the most vulnerable families, they also bring unbridled joy.
“Do you want it?” my mom would ask six-year-old me if she caught me eyeing a toy. Even if we didn’t have much, we did have the 99 Cents Store and the small excitements that it brought us despite only having maybe five dollars upon entry. There was always a feeling of limitless potential at the 99 Cents Store.
When I was older, I loved pausing to watch the sky behind the 99 Cents Store if I was heading home during sunset. Once the sky darkened, the store windows became a large, sprawling television, illuminating all the lives that meandered through the aisles.
While they pose a risk to the most vulnerable families, they also bring unbridled joy.
The place was simply magnetic. Running into someone we knew was an inevitability at the 99 Cents Store. It didn’t matter if we just saw someone the day before or if we had lost touch for months. Somehow, we always ended up at the 99 Cents Store at the same time. After breaking up with a boy during my senior year of high school, I would hold my breath if I caught sight of his mom’s curls bouncing up and down toward the checkout, and if our eyes made contact from the opposite ends of an aisle, I would turn around and linger by the gummies, where I knew she never went. I only moved on when I saw her hair on the other side of the windows.
And there were always so many aunts. My dad’s sisters were all over Los Angeles county, but most lived or worked in the San Fernando Valley. Speaking with them if I ever ran into them was a delicate dance, one in which I had to estimate what my mom was or wasn’t sharing with them over impromptu phone calls. If they asked how my dad was doing, was it coded language for “Does he still work at that factory down the street?” If they eyed my short pixie cut too closely, did they know I just had lice a few weeks ago and that we couldn’t find lice shampoo at the 99 Cents Store? Sometimes, I saw middle-aged Vietnamese men who worked at the factory down the street with my dad, and I watched them pick out their 99 Cents Store items, taking care to inspect whatever it was they might have grabbed. My dad never went anywhere on his breaks, but I liked to imagine that if he were on a break at the 99 Cents Store, he might treat himself to a small bag of chips or a stick of beef jerky.
I distanced myself from the 99 Cents Store in my teen years, going only when I really had to because I didn’t want a classmate to see me through the window. I learned that going to the 99 Cents Store was associated with being poor, in the same way that I figured out not everyone got Thanksgiving paper bags filled with instant mashed potatoes and canned cranberry sauce.
But one day, as I was watching a movie in our sweltering apartment because my parents don’t believe in air conditioning, I stared as Adam Sandler’s character in Punch-Drunk Love buys tons and tons of pudding at the 99 Cents Store. Under the same fluorescents that I knew so intimately, Sandler dances between brightly colored items lining the shelves. Watching this as a teenager, I was shocked into self-awareness. This was where my family shopped nearly every weekend. This was where I went at the beginning of every school year to stock up on notebooks and pens and binders. It was the first time I saw something so intimate to my own life displayed to me in a context outside of myself.
Sitting there, watching the 99 Cents Store through the lens of a character so desperate to spin his pudding purchases into frequent flyer miles, I thought of my own 99 Cents Store down the street, of the times I felt desperation there throughout my childhood. The movie captures so perfectly the ways in which people in the San Fernando Valley weave in and out of 99 Cents Stores.
Watching customers at the 99 Cents Store is like sitting in on an intricate dance put on by a cast of characters, rotating in and out of a stage stocked endlessly with travel-sized body wash and novelty plastic cups. Sometimes a neighbor was the cashier, and my mom would whisper to me, “I wish I could work at the 99 Cents Store. I would do a better job here.” Other times, a long-lost friend would come up to us and yell my mom’s name in excitement before launching into an in-depth update of her life. It felt as though no matter where the people in our lives went, they always found themselves back at the 99 Cents Store for something.
It was only when I moved to the East Coast that I started to sense fall’s approach by the cool air and golden leaves instead of by the appearance of an entire 99 Cents Store aisle dedicated to Halloween costumes and decorations. At its heart, the 99 Cents Store is, in a sense, pure commodity.
A look at artist Andreas Gursky’s photography series, 99 Cent, shows rows upon rows of bags, cans, boxes, and more, a mesmerizing ocean of neatly lined packages that dazzle the senses to the point of numbing.
But the series doesn’t show people like my family, immigrants who loved the 99 Cents Store because we had to, who otherwise couldn’t afford living and eating in a place like Los Angeles. When I look at Gursky’s photos or rewatch the 99 Cents Store scene from Punch-Drunk Love, I imagine myself, my parents, and my little brother in some corner of the store, a Vietnamese family of four clinging to a purple basket full of canned food and sour cream and onion chips.
An Uong is a writer, editor, and recipe tinkerer whose work orbits themes of pop culture, food, and Vietnamese-American womanhood. Her writing is forthcoming or has appeared in Catapult, Eater, Hyphen Magazine, Roads and Kingdoms, Bon Appetit, Taste, and elsewhere. Living between Los Angeles and Providence, Rhode Island, she’s always on the lookout for a good bowl of bún bò Huế. Find her online: @anuonganuong.