Senseless killing of Handy Corner store owner won’t destroy Puyallup cornerstone

Hundreds gather for vigil for Soon Ja Nam

Hundreds of friends, family, and community members gathered for a candlelight vigil for Soon Ja Nam at Handy Corner Store in Puyallup. Nam was killed during a robbery of the store Saturday night.
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Hundreds of friends, family, and community members gathered for a candlelight vigil for Soon Ja Nam at Handy Corner Store in Puyallup. Nam was killed during a robbery of the store Saturday night.

Mom-and-pop markets aren’t as prevalent as they once were, not in this era when Walmart, Target and Amazon dominate the landscape. With society’s definition of convenience constantly evolving, visits to traditional convenience stores are often limited to buying lottery tickets, a bag of ice or snacks for a road trip.

But there are communities where the locally owned corner store still serves as a social cornerstone — and a blow to it can shake a neighborhood to its core.

The Handy Corner is just such a place in the Puyallup area, and the cold-blooded killing of 79-year-old store owner Soon Ja Nam last Saturday evening was just such a blow.

Soon was slain despite cooperating with a pair of masked robbers; one of them followed her to the store’s office and shot her in the back while her husband Joseph looked on helplessly. After a three-day manhunt, one teenage suspect was found dead Wednesday; the other was arrested.

A vigil in Soon’s honor Sunday drew hundreds of people to the store at 8009 112th St. E. A curbside memorial of flowers, handwritten tributes and chalk art grew so large, Pierce County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Ed Troyer said it rivaled the outpouring of love for young Charlie and Braden Powell after they died at the hands of their father in 2012.

As mom-and-pop stores go, the Handy Corner is a pillar; Soon and Joseph Nam owned and operated it since 1979. On social media this week, neighbors recalled playing hide and seek in the store as children or rendezvousing there when old enough to drive. Soon was remembered for her smile, generosity and sweet motherly advice to drink water and stop smoking.

The Handy Corner epitomizes what former U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan talked about during his 2012 speech accepting the Republican vice presidential nomination:

“Behind every small business, there’s a story worth knowing,” Ryan said. “All the corner shops in our towns and cities, the restaurants, cleaners, gyms, hair salons, hardware stores – these didn’t come out of nowhere. A lot of heart goes into each one.”

The tragic end of Soon’s story is a reminder of the perils of convenience store work, consistently ranked among America’s most dangerous jobs. Last Friday, a man charged with robbing a Lakewood store at knifepoint reportedly told police he was “doing bad stuff, just to have something to do.”

Soon Ja Nam
Soon Ja Nam Pierce County Sheriff's Department

What makes murders like Soon’s all the more shocking is that they’re not crimes of passion done in secret; they’re crimes of transaction committed in public, a burst of inexplicable violence triggered by desire for cash, cigarettes or random merchandise. Three decades after the murder of Steilacoom Marina owner Paul Wang, the incident still resonates for its utter senselessnes; Wang was shot and stabbed to death in 1987 by two teens who took cash, candy and fishing gear.

So what else can be done for Soon Ja Nam’s family? How can the community keep their store — and their story — alive? Try doing a little less shopping at chain stores and instead frequent the Handy Corner. Or, if you’re not near Puyallup, go out of your way to support locally owned stores in your own community. “You gotta come and shop. That’s all I care about, seeing your smiley faces once or twice a day,” Soon’s son, Tohyon Nam, told the crowd at Sunday’s vigil.

A steady stream of customers isn’t just about keeping stores profitable; it’s about keeping the front counter so busy that criminals have few opportunities to strike.

And it sends a signal to hard-working small business owners: We’ve got your back.

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