ATA SHEIKH


Ata in his grocery store on Skillman Avenue

“When you want to come to America, don’t buy a discount ticket or you’ll end up on Skillman Avenue.”

28 years ago, two days after getting his American drivers license, Ata Sheikh almost made a wrong turn from 48th Street onto Skillman Avenue. When he noticed that Skillman Avenue was a one-way street, he turned around. Before turning, though, he spotted an empty store.

The next day he happened to see the very same store advertised in the paper and decided to buy it. While his wrong turn had quickly turned into a right, the process of becoming a businessman happened step by step.

“I knew nothing about business,” says Sheikh, who lives with his wife and five children in Woodside. “But I automatically started to learn. The customers are the main source to teach business people how to run a business.”

Sheikh feels comfortable around his frequent customers, many of whom return several times a week for a cup of coffee, to discuss politics (Sheikh is an avid fan of Hillary Clinton), or simply gossip. He has faced only a few problems as a storeowner. He was robbed twice in the eighties and nineties and occasionally he encounters a “grab and run thief.”

“This is a very good area,” Sheikh says with confidence. “For me this is my home.”

Originally from Kashmir in Pakistan, Sheikh used to work for an import-export firm in Saudi Arabia. During his month-long vacations he traveled around to see other countries. He has always been the adventurer in his family and is the only one who left Pakistan.

Sheikh now rarely visits his home country. “They think I’m the crazy one, who likes to stay alone,” he says about his seven brothers and sisters. “But that’s the way I like it.”

While Sheikh and I talk, the lottery machine rings incessantly. 40% of the store’s income derives from lottery tickets and scratch-offs, the rest from soda, beer, snacks and toiletries. Asked to tell a funny story having to do with his store, Sheikh returns to the reason why he ended up on Skillman Avenue. In the podcast he tells this story as his favorite joke.

Listen to Ata’s interview