Those who stopped by the Handy Corner Convenience Store in Puyallup often would find Soon Ja Nam behind the counter, knitting her latest project.
It was one of the 79-year-old store owner’s favorite things to do, said her son, Tohyon Nam.
So was talking to the people who came through the door.
“She likes the store because she likes the people,” said her husband, 85-year-old Joseph Kiho Nam. “She loves the people.”
They love her back.
That’s clear from the hundreds of cards and flowers that covered the property and storefront since Soon Ja was shot and killed in a robbery at Handy Corner on April 27.
One teen suspect was arrested and another found dead Wednesday. The dead teen was identified Thursday.
The loss of Soon Ja is as big for the community as it is for their family, Tohyon said. That’s part of the reason they opened the store only hours after Soon Ja’s death.
“We could have just shut the doors and have a private thing and gone away, but how does that help all of those people that are affected by it?” Tohyon said. “A lot of people are retired around here and sit here for hours, chatting with my mom. How would this person get over this tragedy? That’s why we did it.”
Tohyon and Joseph Nam shared with Tacoma’s News Tribune on Thursday how the family came to own Handy Corner, which they took over in 1979.
Soon Ja was born in the northern part of Korea in 1940, prior to the Korean War. As political unrest in Korea increased, her family moved south.
Soon Ja and Joseph met when she was a senior in university. Joseph had just been discharged from the Korean army after 23 years. They married on March 7, 1963.
Soon Ja had a special interest in library science and earned her master’s degree in Korea and was working as a professor. But both she and her husband wanted to provide a better life for their two boys, Tohyon, now 53, and Sanghyon, now 50.
Joseph was issued a special immigrant status and told, “If you want to leave Korea and go to the United States, at any time you can leave,” he said.
They arrived in America in February 1978.
At first, they struggled. Joseph was unable to get a job at Fort Lewis, now Joint Base Lewis-McChord, like he expected. Prior to leaving Korea, the Nams called the state library in Olympia to set up a job for Soon Ja. But when they arrived, they were told she had to re-earn her master’s degree from the University of Washington.
“She couldn’t,” Joseph said. “She had to raise the two kids, and at the same time, we had to have food on the table.”
They lived in Olympia for six months and then Tacoma for a short period before they were contacted by the previous owners of Handy Corner in Puyallup. The Nams took over the store officially in 1979. They also owned a gas station.
Soon Ja took on other jobs sewing and working on farms for extra income.
“That’s the kind of person she was,” Joseph said.
Tohyon, a 1984 Rogers High School graduate, said he’s had an easier life because of his mom and store customers.
“They fed us for 40 years,” he said. “I’ve been telling people that, ‘You don’t know, but everybody that walks in here, you put me through school. You clothed me.’ ”
As Puyallup grew, Soon Ja became the face behind the counter at Handy Corner. When she took breaks, she visited friends and customers and went to church every Sunday, her family said.
“My mom put in many hours,” Tohyon said. “She would be here 12 to 14 hours a day, running everything by herself. From doing deliveries to doing the bookkeeping to paying all the bills.
“This store is her life.”
Soon Ja was known not to charge customers who might not have the money to pay.
“In those days, this neighborhood was not that wealthy,” Tohyon said. “A lot of people didn’t have the money, so my mom would give them an IOU and things like that. That’s how she got close to the families, and that’s why we’re getting the love and support now.”
Soon Ja wasn’t just a store owner – she was part of their lives, Tohyon said.
“(She went) to their high school graduation, their marriage, their funerals,” he said. “Those people are here because my mom went to their first birthdays. She did all that.”
The Nams are still figuring out how to move forward with the store. Both of Soon Ja’s sons have full-time jobs.
“We still don’t have the answer,” Tohyon said. “Are we going to sell it? Are we going to keep it? How are we going to keep it?”
A public memorial for Soon Jan will be held Saturday in Puyallup.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.