The Stories of New York’s Deli Owners, One Book at a Time
Deli Deli showcases deli owners, their establishments, and their stories—both in an online blog and in customized books
First, there was Humans of New York. Then, Dogs of New York, Now, one project—Deli Deli—is spotlighting deli owners from around the city and bringing their immigrant stories to life, both online and in print.
Customized books have been made for four deli owners across the city so far, each featuring an illustration of the owner, photographs of the store and their families, and telling of the owner’s journey.
The creators, New York-based designers Yoonjin “Zoonzin” Lee and Nova Pan, say they were inspired to start Deli Deli by their friends’ parents and local deli owners, who revealed interesting backstories once they opened up. The pair tells PSFK:
Our goal is to not only make deli owners feel recognized for all of their hard work when they physically hold a book about themselves, but also to share honest stories told by ordinary people who come from all over the world with different goals and dreams.
After choosing a neighborhood in New York, Lee and Pan walk around to scope out possible delis to feature for the project. Though it can be difficult to find a deli owner who is both available and willing to participate, they say the end product is more than worth it, for what it teaches them:
Each store has their own histories, and each owner has immigrated to this country and worked hard throughout their journeys that led to where they are today.
Nova and Lee say one of their most unforgettable moments working on the project was meeting Jamal, the owner of Spice Corner Deli and the first individual they featured on their project.
Although English was his second language, we were able to feel the genuine kindness of how he much he cared about his family, his customers, and our project. He told us that we reminded him of his granddaughters.
After interviewing the owner and their family, photographing the store, and creating related illustrations, Pan and Lee print about five copies of each book, along with stickers for delis to give out to the customers.
The title for each book is stylized with the owner’s handwriting, while the books also include an inspiring quote from Lee and Pan’s interview.
Ultimately, they say the project has allowed both of them—who say they are not very outgoing—to go out of their comfort zones, while doing the same for the owners. They say:
The owners of these delis may not be famous people and may not have the story of how they invented a world-changing product. Us ordinary people sharing our ordinary lives is the reason why our lives are actually interesting.