Valerie Williams flashed her sparkling pink, purple and white speckled “happy birthday blinged out nails,” meticulously done by Patti Gomez of iMagic Nails, one of 80 small businesses tucked into an old Sam’s Club on Stockton Boulevard in south Sacramento. “Don’t it look like cake and ice cream? Purple is my favorite,” said Williams, who will turn 47 – “proudly” – on March 19. “Patti’s fabulous. I’ve referred at least 10 people.”
Williams, a human resources supervisor for the state of California, has been coming to ShopSmart, billed as “the ultimate marketplace,” for two years. “It’s one-stop shopping for the whole family,” said Williams. “I buy headbands, jewelry, accessories and purses and have my eyebrows done. It’s very fair – there are very good deals.”
Williams, one of Gomez’s first customers Sunday, is among the thousands of Sacramentans across the racial and ethnic spectrum who pour into ShopSmart’s international bazaar every day except Tuesday, when it’s closed. Some come to buy wedding and quinceañera dresses, suits, shoes, T-shirts, lingerie, soccer jerseys, eyeglasses, cosmetics, cookware and furniture. Others are here to get their shoes or cellphones fixed, dresses tailored, car stereos installed, hair styled, nails done, eyebrows threaded Indian style and hands adorned with henna tattoos while their kids eat tamales, snow cones and chili dogs, and jump in a bounce house or play air hockey and arcade games.
ShopSmart, spread across 108,000 square feet, is patterned on bustling indoor markets in Latin America and Asia, said owner Matt Mertens, who started it with John Worden at the height of the recession and opened it in July 2010. The partners, childhood friends from Glendale who had worked in television advertising sales, got the idea from a Mervyn’s turned into a marketplace in Phoenix.
“We saw a lot of big box stores were closing and sitting empty and decided Sacramento has the most diverse market in California,” said Mertens, 43. “We wanted to create a unique marketplace that Sacramento would embrace and give people a place to start their own business without the risk of a traditional brick-and-mortar business.”
They leased the space from Sam’s Club, which had moved to a new spot at Power Inn and Calvine roads, advertised in ethnic media and opened with more than 150 vendors, some of whom needed coaching on how to launch a business and provide customer service, Mertens said. “It’s kind of been an incubator for small businesses. Some couldn’t make it, but others started with 200-square-foot spaces, tested their product, got their feet wet, figured out what they were doing and grew their businesses to 5,000 square feet.”
ShopSmart was designed to keep families afloat during the recession, said manager Jennifer Perez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants. “When the economy was falling apart, a whole lot of people lost their jobs, so we said let’s give people places to have a business,” said Perez, 39, who had her own booth selling shoes and ladies’ handbags to make ends meet before she became the manager. “A lot of our businesses are run by the owner. They and their kids and families work here.”
Customers and vendors alike come from more than 20 nations across five continents, Perez said. “We have people from Fiji, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, Vietnam, China, Korea, Africa, a gentleman from Dubai, a lady from Ecuador, a girl from Columbia, Mexicans, Guatemalans, Brazilians, Africans, Hmong, a Mien person.”
On weekends, more than 2,000 customers cruise the aisles, Perez said.
The prices are generally cheaper than what department stores offer and many vendors are open to negotiation, Mertens said. “A lot of folks in the Asian and Hispanic communities like to haggle in the mercado environment here. That’s what they did in their home countries. They thrive on it.”
For many vendors, the market is about fresh starts and second chances, Mertens said.
Gomez, 31, now has a diverse team of nail artists working for her at iMagic Nails. She moved to Sacramento in 2000 from Jalisco, Mexico, and learned how to do nails seven years ago, schlepping her tables and materials to flea markets from Manteca to the Bay Area until ShopSmart gave her a permanent home. “My marriage only lasted two years,” she said. “My ex-husband, who’s now in Mexico, started doing drugs and became abusive, and I went to WEAVE (Women Escaping A Violent Environment) with my daughter.” Now her daughter, who’s 10 “knows everything about the nail business, but would rather become a veterinarian,” Gomez said.
Another immigrant from Jalisco, Enrique Tapia, 43, said he struggled with meth addiction and had to go to rehab in Tijuana. “When I got back, I was about to live on the streets when, like magic, my sister gave me a Latino magazine advertising this new indoor market,” he said. With a $3,000 loan from his father, Tapia opened a booth selling socks, underwear and T-shirts that has morphed into Large Men’s Store, Today’s Clothing, featuring several thousand square feet of cowboy boots, vaquero shirts, hats, suits, bow ties and other apparel that draws crowds of Latino and African American clients. “John and Matt showed me how to work hard,” said Tapia. “I’m seven years clean and feel proud. I have four employees.”
The concrete floors, which keep the store cooler in summer, host many cross-cultural interchanges. Evelyn Gutierrez, 40, had her eyebrows threaded for $8 at Brow & Glow by Sonia Bharth, a 25-year-old immigrant from Punjab, India. “It’s much cooler than being an open market,” said Gutierrez, a licensed vocational nurse at UC Davis Medical Center who’s working on becoming a registered nurse. “Threading is like plucking your eyebrows,” she explained.
Another customer sporting perfectly thin eyebrows, Maria Rodriguez, 16, added, “threading doesn’t hurt as much as having your eyebrows waxed. I come once a month.”
There’s a broad range of Indian jewelry and clothing available in the market. Another recent arrival from Punjab, Jaswinder Jassi, 29, runs Raj Boutique, featuring filmy $150 Anarkali dresses he says have been a symbol of royalty for centuries. The shop also has a rich array of colorful saris. “I manufacture them in India,” Jassi said.
Women in the market for lingerie or custom tailoring come to Vue’s Fashion, run by Chao Chang, a Hmong refugee from the Ban Vinay camp in Thailand. “We’ve been here since it opened,” said her daughter, Pa Houa Vue, a 14-year-old sophomore at West Campus High School.
They’re down the aisle from Denise Carter, a Puerto Rican who runs Rasta Imports, offering hats, crowns, head wraps, black soaps, oils, shea butter from Ghana, and a range of flags, clothes and incense. “It’s definitely a cross-cultural world market,” said Carter who, on Sunday, was running the shop with her son Joseph Lopez.
Three generations of Jimenez women were hard at work. Irma M. Jimenez, 53, runs the family quinceañera and prom dress concession. Her daughter Deisy Jimenez, 33, sells jewelry. And granddaughter Yulianna Sanchez-Jimenez, 8, is perhaps the best salesperson in the bunch. “I like coming here because I make my own money,” Sanchez-Jimenez said, pointing out an assortment of fake nails, fans, purses, lunchboxes, headbands, necklaces, rosaries and rosary bracelets. She held up her wrist, showing off a red-beaded bracelet. “I started with 10 and I have one left. They sold out quick on me!”
Mertens, whose wife is Palestinian, “loves the Indian jewelry and scarfs,” he said. When an African American grandmother remarked how safe she felt with her grandkids in the market, Mertens said he’s devoted to fostering a family destination.
To open a store costs about $21 a day, six days a week. “That would get you 120 square feet. We supply utilities, marketing, advertising, It’s up to you how much you can sell. We didn’t do background checks, we don’t check your credit. It’s essentially month to month.” If there are disputes, Mertens and his staff step in. “We want people to be return shoppers.”
ShopSmart’s nearly at capacity, Mertens said. “We’re looking to open a second location in the Sacramento area.”
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.
7660 Stockton Blvd., Sacramento
Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday; closed Tuesday
Info: (916) 226-2533; shopsmartcalifornia.com