Entrepreneurs ordinarily name their businesses after themselves, but corner-store philosopher Shucri Stephan went the other direction when he purchased Smitty's Grocery in Visitacion Valley on Bayshore Boulevard, right on the county line.
Stephan named himself after his business.
"Everybody called me Smitty," he says, noting that "Smitty" was superior to his legal first name for a variety of reasons: It was easier to remember and pronounce; it seemed more neighborly than Mr. Stephan; and it afforded the Greco-Palestinian immigrant a lower profile among area roughnecks.
Smitty owned and operated the store near the Cow Palace from 1977 until 1994, when he sold it to its current proprietor, Mr. Lee. The place still does a brisk trade under the name Smitty's Grocery, and the moniker isn't the only thing that remains the same at the shop. Left glued to the counter and walls are a dozen placards hand lettered by Smitty that extemporize on his basic philosophy: "Smile Life is Good."
"The reason I wrote the signs is that I see people who are unhappy and miserable," says the 64-year-old Smitty over coffee at his son-in-law's restaurant, the Crepevine. "So I try to figure it out."
The first sign Smitty posted was less a reflection of his personal philosophy than it was a public notice that he would not be trifled with. Many of his patrons, in addition to being unhappy and miserable, were "rowdy" residents of the nearby Sunnydale projects. After working in the neighborhood for five years, Smitty finally acquired the nerve to intimidate the rowdies with this notice:
If you feel you are going to be an asshole today. Please just stay away from me. You must know I hate assholes by now.
And please don't tell me you are a good asshole. There is no good or bad asshole. All assholes are the same. Smile. Life is Good Smitty's
The proclamation worked, Smitty says, distracting the most rambunctious ("We only had one holdup in 18 years"), charming the cops who dropped by, and entertaining the average Joes who swooped in for a pack of smokes, a quart of milk on the way home, or a road kit to smuggle into Candlestick Park just up the way.
Later, Smitty added this codicil to the asshole aphorism:
We respect people that respect themselves.
We hate assholes, bullshiters and crooks, shoplifters equally. We love you at Smitty's only if you do what we want. Ha! Ha! Ha! Spend your money at Smitty's join the club. Smile Life is Good. Smitty's.
Smitty's wisdom about assholes spread among his customers, and inspired a regular customer who worked at a nearby sewage treatment plant to action.
"He was an English engineer," Smitty says. "He had cancer in his throat, and a person he knew was giving him a hard time. The engineer couldn't talk back, so he gave the person $5 and told him to go buy lunch at Smitty's and read the signs. He didn't tell him why."
"He got the message."
The reception accorded the posters encouraged the liquor-store guru to expand his list of busted-syntax/fractured-spellings maxims, and he took to punctuating the "Smile Life is Good" mantra with smiley faces, like this:
Smile Life is Good
Be cool, don't try too hard. You can only do half the job, someone else will have to do the other half!! Surprised!!!
Think about it!! Smile Life is good. Don't waiste your life worriying about money. Just live and be happy. Love Smitty's hot link is hot.
(For the curious, the ubiquitous "hot link is hot" references in Smitty's signs hype the grocery's pungent hot dogs, which Mr. Lee still serves by the bunload.)
As you can imagine from Smitty's Tevye/Zorba perspective, not working too hard is essential to living well.
"I never worked to my capacity; I always depended on someone else. Working hard doesn't make you rich. Working smart," he says as he finger-thumps his temple, "makes you rich."
"I know you are going to like this," Smitty says, smiling to beat the reaper because his life is truly good. "I came to this country 30 years ago with a wife and three kids and $300. Now I have a wife, three kids, and $400!!!"
The truth of the matter is that Smitty is flush. He has traveled a good bit of the world (Europe, Africa, Mexico, South America), has seen his three daughters graduate from college, and has retired to San Mateo County. But he remains active, running the Bay to Breakers, investing in real estate, and worshiping his granddaughter. "I do. I worship my granddaughter. I never knew I had so much love in my heart," he says. "Her name is 'Themar,' which means 'fruitful one' in Arabic."
Still, Smitty must have suspected the surplus of love in his heart, seeing as the emotion of the poets ranks No. 1 in his Three Pillars of Wisdom to Happiness sign:
My Three Pillars of Wisdom to Happiness
1. Something to Love
2. Something to Do
3. Something to look forward to. It is that simple Life is Good. Smitty's Hot Link is Hot
"Love lubricates your life," Smitty annotates. "If you're idle, you're dead. And you definitely want to know that tomorrow is not going to be like today, otherwise you don't want to live." And, as everyone knows, Smitty's hot link is hot.