When Daniel Nasunin first opened his business on Mountain View Drive more than a decade ago, he was a different kind of salesman and people still watched VHS tapes.
Nasunin and his wife ran a Thai video store behind a modest storefront in a corner strip mall: For several years, he said, the store did steady business, but then his customers began watching their movies online and at some point he started stocking a few Thai vegetables along with the videos. As it turned out, the vegetables were a hit.
He opened Thai Market as a full-blown grocery store in 2008. Nasunin said he expanded his business into an adjacent space, and stocked everything from Thai snack foods and sauces to vegetables and seafood. Customers came through regularly and often. But after losing the ability to accept food stamps several years ago, Nasunin said it’s been increasingly difficult to keep the grocery store open.
“It’s very hard, but we just keep going,” he said.
The market’s shelves aren’t as full as they used to be. Still, most of what remains is distinctly and uniquely Thai. It’s hard to find at other Anchorage grocers. While Asian foods are also sold at another market down the road and Red Apple, it’s a variety that doesn’t always include Thai Market’s wide selection of ingredients necessary for traditional Thai cooking.
Nasunin is proud of his store’s selection. Sitting near the cash register, there are baskets of deep red dragon fruit and sour green makok. There are Thai-language CDs on display under the glass counter, and plastic packages of Thai chewing leaves on top. Nasunin said the leaves, which provide a caffeine-like high, are mostly used by his elder customers — Thai, Laotian and Hmong.
The grocer himself came to Anchorage from Laos by way of Florida, New Hampshire, Boston and California. After coming to Alaska for a job on a fishing boat, Nasunin spent time working at a Barrow hotel and a Point Lay man camp. But while he worked on the North Slope, his new wife and two young children were still living in Thailand, so every six weeks he would fly south to see them, thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean. And in 2002, he moved them north to Alaska and opened the family business in Mountain View. Nasunin said his two sons grew up around the neighborhood store.
But the years have brought a few changes.
People no longer rent video tapes like they used to. Without the ability to accept food stamps, the grocery business has suffered. Nasunin said he had reapplied for the program; he didn’t know what he would do if his application was unsuccessful. Maybe — after all these years — he would sell the store? That had its own challenges.
“It’s hard to sell right now,” he said Tuesday morning, sitting at a side table and watching the door to his store. “Nobody’s interested in grocery stores anymore.”
For the first hour of business, nobody came through the door. It’s like that a lot these days, he said.
But the next day — Wednesday — he drove to the airport like he does every week and picked up his shipment of produce from farms in Florida and suppliers in Seattle. Back at the store, he and his wife rearranged the shelves and restocked the bins with savory Thai herbs and vegetables. A customer came through to browse the fresh selection.
Nasunin said he would order more stock Saturday, like he always does.