The man customers called “Pop Pop” was always behind the counter, waving to his regulars, watching the old-timers play the lottery and debate football. He would hand out ice cream to children and — if you were a bit short on money — look other way when it came time to pay.
Gold Corner Market in Northwest Washington is closed now, its black iron gate locked tight even if the sign says, “Yes, we’re open.” It’s longtime owner, 76-year-old James Oh, died Tuesday, four days after he was hit on the head with a gun during an afternoon robbery on Independence Day, struck after he had handed his attackers $3,000.
The beating of Oh and his 66-year-old wife, Soonai, of Rockville was caught on surveillance video, and D.C. police said they have recovered a stolen black Jeep Cherokee that was used as a getaway vehicle. Police are looking for two men, who had worn masks and red and gray hooded shirts.
As police continue to look for suspects, posting a $25,000 reward, friends and customers have stopped by the shop to pay their respects. Funeral services are set for Friday in Rockville.
“It’s unbelievable that he’s gone,” said Marvin A. Jones, a 49-year-old retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who lives in the Madison Terrace condo building, where the store is located. “There are certain things you always expect. And Mr. Oh was one of them. If he’s not there, it’s strange.”
Jones said that Oh — who opened the store at Colorado Avenue and 14th Street more than 20 years ago — greeted him every morning joking about his military rank. “ ‘When are you going to become a full bird?’ ” Oh would ask. In everyday conversation, Jones said that Oh would promote him. “He just called me ‘Colonel,’ ” said Jones, who now works for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“This store has been the center of many people’s lives,” Jones said. “People came in here every day to play the lottery and wait for numbers. Elderly men sat around and debated Cowboys and Redskins, endlessly. I pray the family keeps this open.”
Oh’s status in the 16th Street Heights neighborhood can been seen in the sorrowful tributes collecting at the store’s front door. Bouquets, a small American flag, candles, stuffed animals, handwritten notes stuck between the iron security bars.
The Shepherd family wrote, “Pop Pop, you will be missed.” A community group signed this: “You were the light in the neighborhood.” A child drew a picture of flowers and hearts and put the paper in a plastic cover to protect it from any rain. “I love you for all the candy and ice cream,” the child wrote. “You are so special.”
The robbery occurred just as the Ohs were closing the store. Police said that two men demanded money and that Soonai Oh initially told them no. She relented when one of the suspects pointed a silver handgun at her, police said, but was too nervous to open the register. One man knocked her to the floor.
The report says that James Oh then yelled, “Okay! Okay! We give money!” and put $3,000 from the register on the counter. Police said one of the men then struck Oh, knocking him unconscious, and fled with the money. The video shows a man in a red shirt assaulting one of the owners and then pounding on the register key.
Family members said they were too distraught to talk publicly about James Oh or the incident.
Shebba Blakney, 50, said she has been shopping at Gold Corner for 20 years and recalled taking her young child to meet the Ohs. James Oh was nice, she said, and his wife was nicer. “If you were low on money,” she said, “they sold you things on a promise.”
Blakney lives in the neighborhood and works at nearby Zion Baptist Church, making her a regular at all times of day. Over the years, Oh’s shop became a community gathering place, where customers took a break to chat or to catch up on gossip or a ballgame, even if they were just picking up soda and a candy bar. Customers didn’t buy big, but they stayed long. Children getting ice cream cones were as welcome as the old-timers hashing out Sunday’s sports plays. The last item Blakney bought was a Pepsi.
The day before the robbery, Jones stopped in for a soda and two ice pops. He has one left. “I don’t know if I can have it now,” she said.