Sitting behind the counter at Gordon’s Market with owner Teresa Kim, I see a different side — actually, every side — of Playa del Rey. There’s a couple on a date buying spices and sauces, a college student picking up some beer, a young man in sweats buying chips and soda for the second time today, a pair of bubbly ladies treating themselves to a bottle of rosé and plastic cups, a junkie buying a lighter, a young professional purchasing stamps to mail in her tax return, two stoners indulging in Dippin’ Dots, an athletic couple buying alkaline water (one of the market’s most popular items) … and the bell at the door keeps dinging as the people keep coming in.

For the past five years and change, this creatively stocked shop on Culver Boulevard is the place where people come for just about anything and everything they need. And Kim is usually behind the register with a welcoming smile and warm conversation.

“I heard your mom is moving to Long Beach. Are you going with her?” she questions one young man.

“You didn’t have time for lunch,” she says to a regular hurrying out, probably referring to ASAP Phorage, which has been serving Asian sandwiches and pho from the back of the market for four years.

These are the types of conversations Kim has with her customers. She knows almost every one. They live, work and play in the neighborhood, and they share their personal stories and struggles with her. That’s because her customers believe Kim cares. And, after sitting with her for 20 minutes, I would agree.

Maybe it’s because of her own story, which goes something like this: Kim was divorced when her son was 3. As a single mother in South Korea, she worked extremely hard, hardly ever seeing her son. When her son entered junior high, Kim decided to quit her job as a teacher and visit her two sisters in California for a year. But she was denied a visa — three times. Instead, she packed just two bags and flew to New Zealand, where upon landing she asked a taxi driver to drop her at a hotel near a good junior high school. Kim enrolled in Auckland University, earned a master’s in education and, on the recommendation of a schoolmate, opened an English-language school — at age 47. She finally made it to the U.S. nine years ago.

Kim still works extremely hard, from 1 p.m. to close on weekdays and all day on the weekends. But now her son is married with three children and employed by the U.S. Army.

“I’m blessed,” says Kim. “I’m happy all the time.”

Except she has one unfulfilled wish: to travel the world in an RV for two years, which she plans to do soon. And it’s easy to believe she will.

— Jessica Koslow

Photo by Courtnay Robbins