Nav Singh: Meaning and community at the grocery

David Briggs
She has faced down churlish customers and survived a flood. She raised her children in the aisles. For almost two decades, Nav Singh has given herself to sustaining the Inverness Store, work that rewards her in deep and manifold ways.   
03/03/2021

Nav Singh will be the first one to tell you: She has a lot of energy. “I’m hyper,” she said last week, sitting on a cushion in the makeshift napping nook in her office at the Inverness Store, which she co-owns with her husband, Raj.

The drive to be busy comes naturally to her, but it’s also a product of immigrating to a country that demands endless energy to handle almost impossible workloads. The cultural shift from outside Delhi, where she grew up with relatives and friends always close by, to the U.S. was stark at first. “Your pace became so fast,” she said. “You had to. You had no choice… People say 'Relax,' but I don’t know how. If you tell me to sit down, I get edgy.”

For close to two decades, Nav has channeled that energy into running the Inverness Store, which, despite its many challenges, has deeply shaped her identity, pushing her to stand up for herself and building her sense of community in a town that has supported her in hard times.

The Inverness Store wasn’t Nav’s first experience at a small grocery. She started in San Rafael, at a market owned by Raj’s family. The couple also worked other jobs—Nav delivered packages and waited tables at a café—as they saved toward their ultimate goal: buying a market of their own. 

That dream came true when Al and Pam Irish put the store up for sale in 2003. The Singhs bought the grocery, which started in the 1940s as the Rite-Price Market, according to historian Dewey Livingston.

The materialization of a dream always entails surprises good and bad, frustrating and rewarding, devastating and even transcendental. It was no exception for the Singhs. 

Running the store was challenging from the get-go, especially as the couple had a new baby. But there was also something special in bringing their little one along. “My son grew up in the aisles,” Nav said. “He learned how to read and write. He’d say, ‘4b? 4b?’ He’d read the date on the tuna cans.”

Just a couple years after the purchase, they experienced a heartbreaking loss: the flood that started on Dec. 31, 2005. Refrigerators broke, and inventory was destroyed. An image has long stayed with Nav, of an expensive brand of diapers, which they carried but could not afford themselves, covered in mud. Worst of all, the couple had no flood insurance. She struggled to keep working. “Every time I came here, it was in my face,” she said.

But she and Raj pulled through with the community’s support. The challenges haven’t stopped, of course. The rise of digital streaming meant that the video rental part of the business suffered and ultimately ceased. Some customers have complained about what they describe as an “empty store,” including to her now-teenage son as he worked the register over the summer. That phrase, Nav said, is a painful one to hear, given that she works six days a week managing the books, running the deli, stocking the shelves and helming the register when need be, along with being a mother to two. 

“I know it could be a lot better,” she said, “but we try really hard.” She likes when customers let her know what they want to be stocked, as opposed to doling out unhelpful judgment. “I ask people if they need something, and I try to carry it for them. I want everyone’s shopping experience to be a pleasant one. I give it my heart and soul and I think people see it…They are my community,” she said.

Indeed, though the shelves themselves don’t fill the store’s large footprint, they are stocked with a diverse selection of foods: upscale macadamia nut milk on a shelf above Hershey’s syrup, Safe Catch wild yellowfin tuna alongside Campbell’s Chunky soup, bags of gluten-free rotini near boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.

Perhaps the store’s most famous display is its sodas. The store sells ginger ale and ginger beer (roughly 20 brands), root beer (another 20 or so) colas, cream sodas, orange sodas and cherry sodas. There is even sarsaparilla soda, blueberry soda, mandarin orange soda, a flavor by Faygo called “Rock and Rye” and a blue soda called Brain Wash.

“That’s Raj,” Nav said. “He’s obsessed with soda, with ginger beer. I say, ‘Do you need so many choices in life’? One time he drove to the East Coast to pick up all this soda, and I said, ‘Are you nuts?’”

Rebecca Dixon, the owner of Dixon Marine Services next door, has known Nav and Raj since they bought the store and is thankful for their stewardship of the grocery, where she buys milk and eggs and lunches at the deli counter (she is partial to the dark rye veggie sandwich.) “I would hope people would be more appreciative than judgmental,” she said. “Owning a business is like nothing you can understand if you haven’t done it. But she will get anything in that store that people would like to see regularly.”

The sandwiches at the deli are classic combinations: ham and cheese, bacon and avocado, turkey and swiss (with optional avocado) and a club, along with the “super veggie” and a shrimp sandwich. The sandwiches don’t have some of the bells and whistles of other places, but Nav, who said she’s been to Katz’s Deli in New York City, said that her sandwiches are, simply, the best. 

“You cannot beat the sandwiches with me. But the thing is, we’re not pretty. We don’t look the part. So people think, do I want to buy this sandwich? That happens,” she said. The expense of putting lipstick, as Nav puts it, on the store is a financial hurdle that she hopes to tackle at some point.

Inverness resident Madeline Hope said that while sometimes they get overwhelmed, Nav and Raj are an important part of the community, listening to customers and donating snacks and drinks to youth events. “They want to be contributing and making things better. That I really appreciate,” she said. “They are for the people.”

The pandemic has presented another challenge, especially as her husband’s asthma meant that he needed to step back from working inside the store. Business from tourists lessened, and last summer wasn’t as busy as usual. But she made sure to stock basics like bread, and she called up older customers, asking if they needed groceries brought to them. “I genuinely care about the people who have been part of my life for all these years,” she said. “There’s no words to express how much gratitude you feel toward people.”

The store is where Nav is happy and sad, where almost all her social interactions (sometimes perhaps bordering on therapy) take place. Her relationships with regular customers have made deep impressions on her. A regular nonagenarian customer, asked why he was so happy all the time, said he had no attachments anymore. Another day she was frustrated, but as she took out the garbage in the evening, she saw the moon rising behind the hills across the bay. “I had to just stop and see it,” she said. “And I thought, could I capture it? On a camera? I couldn’t. I just had to live it… Now this is home. Whatever it’s taken, the thick and the thin, you feel a connection, and I do to this place.”

Running the store has also offered Nav a kind of empowerment. Growing up in India, there was little opportunity for women, and she was taught to be acquiescent and to not express her emotions. Managing the store pushed her to “unlearn” some of those expectations. She recalled the time when a wealthy customer was about to buy her most expensive bottle of wine. But he became irate about another item—a set of flyswatters in which one was missing. After he demanded the missing swatter, without which he wouldn’t buy anything, she told them that there was a bigger market up the road with better wine. He could go there if he pleased. He was struck dumb.

“Honestly, I never had any self worth when I was young,” Nav said. “But then I realized, you know, I’m a good mom, I’m good at stocking shelves, I can actually talk. And it was in this store that everyone made me realize I was good at what I did, and that’s why I love it so much…. I think this journey of unlearning began in this very store. It’s okay to feel whatever you are, as long as you don’t hurt anyone intentionally. What you feel is okay and valid. You don’t have to be ashamed. All that I learned here through talking to people, and them understanding who I was…I feel like I belong here in a way I never thought I would. I feel so blessed, I just do.”

As Nav talked about her time at the store, the concept of attachment arose again and again. Nav has many attachments—to her children, her husband, the store. Attachments, she said—or even the idea of ownership itself—aren’t always good. They can bring pain and difficulty. An important Hindu text explains how they can lead to bad decisions, she said. 

Yet she also returned, again and again, to all that the store had given her. “This place has really taught me a lot, a lot, and given me a lot of love—love beyond measure,” she said.