Raj Singh assists Melissa Rodriguez with her purchases at La Bamba Market & Deli. Rodriguez is a regular customer who lives in the neighborhood. Credit: P.J. Heller photo

They might not define Santa Barbara like the Old Mission, the iconic Santa Barbara County Courthouse or even the panoramic waterfront, but for generations of local residents, the little neighborhood markets that dot the city’s corners are as much a part of the community’s history and culture as its more illustrious landmarks.

The city’s first “convenience stores” started popping up in the early 1900s, according to “Santa Barbara Grocers,” a 2003 article by local historian Hattie Beresford, published in “Noticias,” the quarterly magazine of the Santa Barbara Historical Museum.

With more and more houses being built farther afield from Santa Barbara’s State Street shopping hub, the local markets filled a growing need to serve people in the nascent neighborhoods.

The new little markets changed with the times, too, transitioning from the general store model that was so 19th century (where customers handed a shopping list to a clerk who would retrieve and bag the requested items) to self-service, a style that came straight from the 1916 playbook of Piggly Wiggly, a Tennessee-based grocery chain that was the granddaddy of the American supermarket.

In their heyday, there were probably dozens of corner stores in Santa Barbara, and while many have disappeared, replaced by roads and urban development, a surprising number remain — and they haven’t changed much over the years.

Take La Bamba Market, at the corner of Micheltorena and Bath streets on the city’s Westside. By some historical accounts, La Bamba is the oldest continually operating neighborhood convenience store in California.

“There are two buildings in Santa Barbara which have housed grocery stores continually since 1917,” Beresford writes. “One site is 235 W. Micheltorena, today the home of La Bamba Market.”

The structure was built in 1915 by Thomas H. Morrison, who in 1887 had opened a grocery store — Morrison and Boies — at 923 State St., Beresford reports.

Morrison got out of the grocery business in 1901 and started a livery stable at the 235 W. Micheltorena St. address, she writes. In 1916, he razed the stable and developed the corner with craftsman-style bungalows and a grocery with a two-story clapboard false front.

The market has undergone a couple of name changes over the years. Some locals might remember it as Wagner’s Grocery in the 1950s and ’60s, then Fresno Market in the ’70s.

Craig Sperry, who bought the store in 1982 and dubbed it La Bamba, sold it in 2003, according to Beresford’s article.

Which brings us to the present-day La Bamba, owned for the past two decades by brothers David and Raj Singh. The Singhs managed the store for a number of years before purchasing it from Sperry.

A high-pitched chime signals the intermittent entry and exit of customers as Raj Singh talks proudly about La Bamba.

Asked about the store’s history, he quickly leans in behind the counter and produces old black and white photographs of the storefront that clearly show not much has changed in 107 years.

The very same photos were displayed in the store by the original owners, Raj Singh said.

A historical photo of the Fresno Market, now La Bamba Market, in Santa Barbara. Credit: Contributed photo

David Singh, who has taken it upon himself to research the history of the property, said La Bamba is the only market of its kind to have gained local historic landmark status — which is one reason, his brother Raj adds, that not much has been done to the place, at least not cosmetically.

“Craig (Sperry) and I talked a lot about the history of the store,” David Singh said of his friend, who had asked him to take over La Bamba before he passed. “There was no Google then, so I went to the city archives.”

As far as David Singh can glean, La Bamba’s site has always been dedicated for use as a market. As with a number of similar local stores, there is an apartment above the retail space, where earlier owners made their home. That flat, which he said also looks like a throwback to a bygone era, now serves as a rental unit.

The building was constructed by crews that included local laborers, as well as Chinese immigrants who had come south from the Bay Area to help steamroll Highway 154 though the Santa Ynez Mountains, David Singh said.

La Bamba’s design is a barn/Victorian style; the front of the store is flat but lacks the traditional Victorian gables. Two of the building’s distinctive features are the “Z” motifs to the far right and left of the front door.

“At some point, it became necessary to make the structure’s outside wall shorter,” David Singh said. “The braces that were installed to strengthen the construction ended up looking like the letter Z.”

While for all intents and purposes, La Bamba appears as it did back in the day, the plumbing and electrical systems have been updated to make the building structurally sound, he said.

There is also a new $50,000 wall-to-wall refrigeration unit “that really helped with keeping the place cool,” Raj Singh said, adding, however, that the floors and ceiling are the original deal.

Raj Singh, pictured, and his brother David Singh have owned La Bamba Market & Deli for about 20 years. Credit: Marcia Heller / Noozhawk photo

What also makes La Bamba historically unique is its size, David Singh said.

At just 670 square feet, including bathroom and storage area, La Bamba is the smallest convenience market in California and, David Singh believes, in the nation.

While interesting, that size distinction comes with challenges, particularly with regard to inventory, according to Raj Singh.

“If you notice, this is a little store, so cramped for space,” he said, stating the obvious. “It’s basically full with everything you could think of. We sell bread, butter, milk, eggs, cheese, soda pop, chips, beer, wine, cigarettes … .”

But that’s what the neighborhood markets are all about.

“Our clientele is mainly families and simple-living people around; they come in and just get one soda pop or a bag of chips, or just a candy bar,” Raj Singh said.

And, for the Singh family, helping to provide some basic needs for their customers serves a higher spiritual calling, and gives them a sense of purpose and satisfaction.

“We are a family of Sikhs, and in Sikhism we do sewa — service to humanity,” Raj Singh said. “So this is part of our whole way of life. We are all professional people, putting time into running this store.”

He is an electrician by trade, and his brother is an accountant.

“Our family has been taking care of the needy and the poor and the homeless for all these years,” Raj Singh said. “We also have a family-run restaurant called Mesa Pizza, so we would do sewa, a food pantry feeding the people.”

But it turns out sewa is not exactly a one-way street. La Bamba’s customers give back to the Singhs as well in the memories they share and the stories they tell.

“The best incidents are the people coming by and telling us their life’s story,” Raj Singh said. “We take pictures of them outside the store to show. They come from back East, all over, Jersey, the Midwest …

“They came here as kids. Most of the houses they owned are now owned by their grandkids. Those are the greatest moments we have, when they come by and share the stories with us.”

For all the gratification the business brings, it does, however, take a certain type of personality and temperament to operate a small family owned shop like La Bamba that’s open 11 hours a day, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

“If I didn’t enjoy doing this, I wouldn’t be here,” Raj Singh said. “That’s the most important thing about little stores like this; if you don’t enjoy working here, you should never do it.

“That’s why it’s so hard to find people to work in these stores, because it could be boring and frustrating if you don’t know how to run it or what to do.”

The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help.

“The pandemic affected the store mainly because most employees [who live in Lompoc] could not come to work,” he said. “It was run by a skeleton staff but still remained open.

“The pandemic hurt our business quite a lot, especially the last two years, but we kept the store running because we were still doing sewa.

“We are thankful to the community for still supporting us over the years, and we will always be here.”

A customer shops at Brownie’s Market at Haley and De la Vina streets in Santa Barbara. Credit: P.J. Heller photo

The Singhs also own Brownie’s Market at 435 De la Vina St.

Built at the turn of the century, Brownie’s looks almost identical to La Bamba, but constructed of solid brick and concrete instead of timber. Both stores even have some of the same customers.

Brownie’s at one time boasted a complete deli with a full kitchen serving sandwiches and hot food, David Singh said: “Mr. Brown (the shop’s namesake) used to bake pies and cakes.”

Coffee, candy and cleaning products are among myriad items shoppers find at Brownie’s Market, at the corner of Haley and De la Vina streets in Santa Barbara. Credit: P.J. Heller photo

For the past 10 years, the Singhs have been trying to reopen the restaurant service and are awaiting approval to offer a lunch menu.

According to Beresford’s article, “Many (of the first markets) were owned by recently-arrived immigrants.” That trend seems to hold true even now as immigrants continue to be the proprietors of those same stores.

David Singh, for example, came to Santa Barbara from South Africa in 1986 after having been on a tour of the United States. He fell in love with the country.

“When I first landed (in Santa Barbara), I got an apartment on Micheltorena, a block away from the market,” he recalled. “Someone said you could meet the most beautiful girls outside the store.”

He might not have met the girl of his dreams there, but he did meet Sperry, which led him to his managing, and eventually owning, La Bamba.

Westside Market & Liquor

With a name like Westside Market & Liquor, you would think the majority of their business is in adult beverages, but according to Feliz Doke, a sales worker at the shop on West Micheltorena Street, you would be wrong. It’s all about the sweet stuff, she said.

“The best sellers are the candies; everybody loves the candies,” Doke said. “A lot of families come in with kids in the morning to buy their lunch and goodies. The parents let them choose what they want. They have a lot of fun picking things out.

“And after school, of course, the kids come in alone or with their parents, depending on how old they are.”

As she talks, a delivery man rolls in a dolly loaded with boxes of snack food bags. Doke grabs a clipboard and pencil to inventory the shipment.

Having worked at the shop for about a year, Doke has gotten to know her clientele, their kids and even their pets.

“Some customers have dogs, and they always have to go around and greet me,” she said. “We always meet up front and have a little bit of huggy time.”

“Westside Liquors has been around for 90 or 95 years, and 99% of the clientele comes from the surrounding neighborhood,” said Chris Maida, who has owned the shop since 2012. “We know most of the people who go over there and most of the people know us.”

Convenience store entrepreneurship seems to run in Maida’s family.

His cousins own other local markets, including Summerland Market, the Corner Store in Santa Barbara, SOS Liquor in Isla Vista and Presidio Market in Santa Barbara. Chris Maida also owns Crown Liquors on Milpas Street.

Pennywise Market

Being the proprietors of a neighborhood convenience store has not always been easy for Vasant and Malti Prajapati, who for the past 40 years have operated Pennywise Market on Santa Barbara’s Eastside.

The Prajapatis have been held up at gunpoint and knifepoint, and the tagging incidents seem relentless, but the couple’s abiding faith in karma and the teachings of Buddha, as well as their profound capacity for forgiveness, have guided them through good times and bad.

Malti and Vasant Prajapati have owned the Pennywise Market, which specializes in Indian food items, for about 40 years. Credit: Marcia Heller / Noozhawk photo

Like the city’s first market owners, many of whom were immigrants, the Prajapatis came to Santa Barbara from Mumbai and Gujarat in India. Vasant Prajapati was a farmer in India, and Malti Prajapati had been studying nursing.

Within six months of arriving in Santa Barbara in 1981, Vasant Prajapati learned the Pennywise Market at the corner of Montecito and Elizabeth streets was for sale. He bought the little shop, then sent for Malti, who was just 19 at the time.

“The language difference made it extremely difficult in every way, day in and day out,” Malti Prajapati recalled. “However, we were very patient. We had nowhere else to go. Vasant managed the position as best he could.”

Vasant Prajapati’s family had faced hurdles before, but their philosophy was always: “Let’s go day by day.”

“We came to realize that whatever happens happens for the good reason. As Buddha says, ‘Don’t question it; trust it,’” Malti Prajapati said. “We believe highly in the karma and reincarnation, and that is helping us to survive. By thinking whatever good or bad is happening, it’s happening for the karma.

“So the bad things that have happened in the past, we apologize and we forgive them, and that brings peace to our minds. Forgiveness is the way to bring peace to them and us.”

A turning point for the little convenience store was when customers learned the Prajapatis were from India, and the Pennywise Market started to introduce Indian foods. Staples at first included Basmati rice, lentils and spices — lots of spices. Gradually they added frozen dishes, pickles, sauces, teas, and Indian sweets.

Pennywise at 1121 E. Montecito St. is still the go-to place in Santa Barbara for Indian cooking ingredients. Eighty percent of the store’s clientele comes in for Indian groceries, Malti Prajapati said.

Although most of their customers are from the neighborhood, tourists coming from San Diego to the Bay Area, and many from northern Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, are finding their way to Pennywise to stock up on Indian fare while they are in town.

While Malti Prajapati said they have never advertised the business (“It’s always been word of mouth”), Google has become a recent major source of customers.

“AirBnB draws a lot of Indian customers to Santa Barbara,” she said. “Purchases of Indian food have increased by 25%.

“We have a lot of children coming since they were babies, and now they are in their 40s and 50s, and we have the grandfather, great-grandfather, great-grandchildren; so three, four generations coming to us from the neighborhood.”

Her eyes fill with tears as they express their heartfelt gratitude to the city of Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara Police Department, which have been there for them, particularly during difficult times.

“They helped us a lot in and out of our bad days,” she said. “The city of Santa Barbara has always supported us. We would not have survived here without the community near and far.

“In the past, from 1981 to 2010, we had a lot of gang issues. Gang members would hang around outside the store and also created problems inside.”

Along with the gang problems, there were countless robberies at gunpoint and knifepoint, she said. The robberies seemed to stop, following an FBI raid; and while the gang problem continued, it was not as bad as it had been, she said.

A couple of crime incidents have taken a particularly big toll — physically, emotionally and spiritually — on Malti Prajapati, such as one that happened when she was seven months pregnant with her daughter.

“I was pushed onto the ice cream machine we have, and the corner of the ice cream machine hit my tummy, and that ruptured the placenta. But by the grace of the universe, after being on bed rest, I had a healthy, uninjured baby,” she said.

Graffitti is the other major dilemma the Prajapatis have had to deal with; and it’s not just by Santa Barbara-based offenders. The taggers have come from Carpinteria, Ventura and Oxnard as well. Just the week before this interview, police were called out to Pennywise when taggers struck once again.

The Prajapatis have often thought about selling the store but don’t know what other line of work they would get into.

“At this age and point, because he is 60 and I am 56, nobody is going to hire us,” Malti Prajapati said. “We don’t fit outside in society as we fit in this market; we would not survive outside. That makes us keep going.

“We just do the best we can as far as we can. Sitting at home is not going to help us physically or mentally.”

“The best thing about the business is serving the community of Santa Barbara who accepted us and allow us to survive here, and now we see everyone as a part of our family. This is our home.”

“We are happy here,” Vasant Prajapati said.

The store is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., closing occasionally if they have a doctor’s appointment.

If a customer needs something, especially Indian food, while the market is closed, they can call the phone number that’s handwritten on a white piece of paper and tacked to the outside door. The Prajapatis will get back to them ASAP.

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Marcia Heller, Noozhawk Copy Editor | @noozhawknews

— Marcia Heller is a copy editor for Noozhawk. Contact her at mheller@noozhawk.com.