Photo by Torrey Bailey
Raied “Ray” Jamil
I’ve been coming to Ray’s Liquor for more than 15 years. That’s long enough to where most of the employees at the quaint convenience store in North Park—the one most people recognize for its iconic spinning sign—all know me by name now. From the younger men restocking the shelves to the teenage girls who work there during the summer, there isn’t any doubt that the store is a family operation.
More often than not, however, it is “Ray” himself that has greeted me. We went years without knowing each other’s names, settling on salutatory designations like “dude,” “sir” and “man.” It took a while before I heard someone else call him Ray and just assumed that the store was named after him.
“Actually, the store has been around since the ‘50s I think,” Ray says. “I’m pretty sure it was owned by a Jewish family, and they named the store after their son.”
Even if the store isn’t technically named after him, Raied “Ray” Jamil, along with his uncle and storeowner Mike Bazzi, are the people most frequently greeting customers. Ray began working at the store in 1995, but quit after a few months only to return in 2000.
“I like the neighborhood, and it’s changed a lot,” says Ray, who lives with his wife and “only four children” in El Cajon. “It’s a good neighborhood with good people.”
Things weren’t always this good. An Iraqi Chaldean (a sect of the Catholic Church), Ray originally moved to the U.S. in 1993 after fleeing Baghdad in 1991 during the Operation Desert Storm conflict. He and his parents and sisters remained in Jordan for two years while waiting on their visas to clear, but it took even longer after their papers were destroyed in the Baghdad bombings. Once he was in San Diego, he says it was difficult to adjust.
“When we came here, we had nothing. I stayed in my uncle’s house for six months. It was really hard. I didn’t have a car, and I didn’t know the language.”
In those six months, Ray took the bus between Spring Valley and Chula Vista in order to learn English. He also worked at another convenience store, but not Ray’s (his uncle has owned the store since 1995). As he tells it, his uncle Mike already had enough employees and didn’t want to let anyone go because they wouldn’t be able to support their own families. Eventually a position opened up, but things got tough after the Iraq invasion in 2003 and especially after the September 11 attacks.
“They call you a camel and shit and I would just say, ‘Hey listen, we are Catholic, we are Chaldean. I’m not a Muslim, but I’m also not ashamed.’ People see you and they assume, but when they realize who you are, they are nicer.”
He goes on to say he considers all the nice people in the neighborhood part of his family.
“A lot of the people are families and you get a good relationship with them. You see some people grow up. I know some people who were little kids when I met them and now they’re big. It’s crazy.”