Family-owned small businesses play a big part in bringing a community together. Pacific Mercantile has done that for almost 80 years in Denver. The Asian grocery store, located on Lawrence Street, carries a variety of items, including fresh produce, snacks and gifts. When you enter, you are greeted by a red circle window representing the Japanese flag.
Its story started in Sacramento, California. George Inai ran a small grocery store up until World War II when people of Japanese descent were sent to internment camps. George and his family were sent to Camp Tulelake. They closed the shop and left it behind. After the war, George heard Governor Ralph Carr was welcoming Japanese families to Colorado.
“He found out that Governor Carr opened up the state to Japanese Americans, no questions asked,” said Jolie Noguchi, George’s granddaughter who now runs Pacific Mercantile. “And that’s where he decided to restart his business.”
Pacific Mercantile opened after the war on Larimer Street and was the first Asian market in Denver. It moved to its current location next to the Denver Buddhist Temple in Sakura Square when the neighborhood was founded in 1973.
The store got its name with help from Carr. The original name was Nippon Market, but knowing the bias and xenophobia Japanese-owned businesses faced, he wanted to help George be successful.
“The name Pacific is due to Governor Carr,” Jolie said. “My grandfather wanted to name it Nippon Market and Governor Carr said, ‘You know, we want the Americans to come to your store. Can you think of another name?’ So, he said he came from the Pacific coast. So the name in itself has history. “
Carr also suggested carrying basic American goods such as milk, bread and detergent. Over time, the store brought in not only Japanese products but food and goods from other countries like China, Vietnam and Korea. They also sell Hawaiian specialty treats.
George also supported local vendors, buying vegetables from the farmers that he used to deliver groceries to. Now his great-granddaughter, Jolie’s daughter Alyssa, looks for local vendors in Colorado.
“My grandfather, he knew, especially the farmers—they couldn’t come to the store because they were busy farming and growing vegetables,” Jolie said. “We bought from them also, and we carry their Napa cabbage. We like to carry local a lot. And that’s where Alyssa comes in. And she’s finding a lot of these local vendors.”
Jolie shared that her grandfather used to deliver groceries, not only in Colorado but also Wyoming. Families have visited the store for generations. Alyssa shared how an older woman would drive all the way from Fort Collins to shop. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, she placed orders over the phone and had them delivered. She and Alyssa grew so close that Alyssa started calling the woman her second grandma.
The store has been run by four generations of family. George passed away in 1993 and the business was passed down to his four children—Naomi, Susie, Sam, and Robert. It’s now run by the third generation, Susie Nagai and her children, Kyle Nagai and Jolie. Alyssa is the fourth generation in the family business.
“We take care of our customers. We treat our customers like they’re family. If you ever need anything, don’t hesitate to ask. If we don’t have what you want, we can probably get it for you,” Alyssa said. “It is getting harder for us to stay in business compared to everything else that’s being built downtown. But we still want that—the niche of being small and being an older business.”
Jolie added, “Having this history of this legacy of what my grandfather started is so important. Pacific Mercantile is a rich part of Denver history and a legacy.”