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Inviting corner markets once frequented by harried mothers rushing to buy ingredients for dinner and neighborhood children clamoring for penny candy seem lost in the shadows of today's mammoth grocery store chains.

But in downtown Salt Lake City, more than 30 mom-and-pop corner shops still exist, according to business license records.The small stores, often characterized by barred windows, neon lights, large signs splashed with soft drink logos and banners advertising sales in foreign languages, cater to the clusters of people who, for years, have picked over their produce and checked the freshness of the bread.

Store owners don't consider customers just friends. To them, customers are family.

"To the large stores you are just a customer. They don't even say `hi' sometimes. Here, we're are on a first-name basis with almost all of our customers. We have a real friendship going on," said Loriel Lowe, who works at Hales Market at 511 S. 500 East.

Since 1923, Hales Market has stood on the corner of 500 East. The neighborhood has been good to the tiny-aisled store stocked full of cereal goods, bread, canned vegetables and fresh produce.

Lowe said although business is good right now, a Fred Meyer store being built across the street will be a threat to the folksy market.

"I think people like to come here instead of large stores because we know them, and we can get them in and out fast," she said.

Tricia Sneddon shops at Hales regularly and hopes the store will flourish even after Fred Meyer opens its doors.

"I like to come here because it is only a few blocks away and I can walk here," she said. "The owners and workers are really nice - that's one reason I like shopping here."

Across town, nestled between homes shaded by large pines, is the R.C. Mart at 1035 E. 200 South where Ron Jarvis visits daily. The mart is decorated with large Coca-cola and Pepsi logos.

Jarvis said the owner and sole worker of the store, Korean native Kyung Lee, manages the R.C. Mart just like Jarvis' grandfather operated a country store in northern Kentucky.

"Lee is just like the old general store manager. He is really nice. Nothing against the convenience stores, but the workers are really cold," Jarvis said. "This place is like an old-fashioned type of store when they sold pickles and crackers in jars and humans were still human."

Kyung came to America seven years ago. Like many small-market owners, hecame to the United States to capture "the American dream," he said. He hopes to make enough money to own even a bigger store.

"But that takes a lot more money," he said.

His customers buy mostly candy and small goods, such as milk and cereal. Lee knows he can't really compete with the large, one-stop shopping centers, but he says he does well enough to make a decent living. He estimates that about 50 people shop at the store daily.

"Business is OK. I don't make a lot of money, but I like it," he said. "I know my customer. I like them. They are nice, really nice."

Lee knows the dangers of being a small business owner in downtown Salt Lake City. In its history, the store has been pillaged three times. The bars on the windows are a simple protective measure against another break-in, he said.

On the other side of the street is a Chinese market. According to the sign in the window, written in Chinese and broken English, the shop will be closed for repairs until next week.

Unlike Lee, who stocks mostly items popular in the United States, the owners, also immigrants, cater to specific ethnic groups.

Shops like Novedades La Mexicana, 370 E. 900 South, are frequented mostly by the Spanish-speaking community. Numerous Asians own and operate stores fully stocked with Oriental foods.

Hyosun Ko, owner of Jin's Market, 202 S. 900 East, said the prices at neighborhood stores are much higher than those at major chains like Smith's or Albertson's. Other small market owners agreed with Ko. They just can't compete, Ko said.

But Joseph A. Jenkins, Utah Department of Community and Economic Development director, said the stores are the "backbone of business" in the city.

"I think those small businesses are the strength of our city," he said. "We get a lot of attention from the media when we bring in big companies, but it is those businesses that just employ five or eight people that help."

Ko at Jin's Market doesn't know how long his business will survive. He has tried to create strategies to lure more customers, but it isn't working as well as anticipated, he said.

"I haven't made a lot of money yet. But I think I will do OK," said the Korean student studying at the University of Utah. "I don't think I'll have this for more than two years."

Other shop owners and workers are more optimistic

"We hope the store will be here forever," said Lowe.