Jody Lee drives by Camden Mart in north Minneapolis most nights on her way home from work. And most nights she marvels at little things that speak volumes:
Forty feet of sparkling clean windows spanning the corner mart's front entrance. An absence of garbage. Well-shoveled sidewalks in winter, welcoming flower pots in summer.
Camden Mart, which opened in March at 4151 N. Fremont Av., is far more than a convenience store. It's a statement about pride of ownership and a love letter from its owners to a neighborhood that doesn't get a lot of love letters.
"I see the bad stuff, but I also see neighbors coming together, people just really helping each other," said Lee, who lives in the nearby Victory neighborhood and is president of the Northwest Minneapolis Business Association. "Kevin has provided an example of what it means to be a good manager."
About a year ago, Kevin Aldwaik, who had run two other area businesses, shared his bold vision with local leaders. With business partner Eddie Elias, he would transform a run-down, windowless pharmacy into a sunny and spacious grocery store and gathering spot for neighbors of all ages.
"Even the building's landlord was skeptical," Aldwaik, 35, said with a smile. Especially about the window part. "I told him, 'If you don't let me have windows, I don't want your building.'"
Aldwaik secured a small business loan, then ripped the place apart and rebuilt it from floor to ceiling. He had "Camden Mart: Your Neighborhood Store" painted on the front door and installed those windows, both clear messages of: Do come in.
"Customers can't believe it," he said. "This is here in north Minneapolis? Some think people over here don't have expectations, but they do."
Aldwaik walks the store's aisles with pride, noting that he carries 5,000 unique and competitively priced items. He's got digital thermometers, wireless adapters, jelly beans, energy drinks, fresh fruit, frozen pizza, pet food, 24 different kinds of cereal. Even Ben & Jerry's ice cream.
Tobacco is a big seller, too, "whether you like it or not," he said. With "a ton of kids around here," he and his small staff are sticklers about checking IDs. "Other places might let it slide, but we're very strict about that."
In a few weeks, he'll have one of the Twin Cities' few Champs Chicken in-store delis, which will sell fried chicken and subs. He plans to hire three or four students from nearby Patrick Henry High School to work part time behind the counter. "I'm anticipating it's going to be a huge success," he says.
Neighbors say success has already come.
"He's my sunshine," said Bonnie Moore, who lives a few doors down and comes in regularly to buy milk, bread and chips. "All of us old ladies love him."
After the big snowstorm a few weeks ago, Moore walked in to ask Aldwaik if he might know someone who could shovel her sidewalk. He said he did.
On his break, Aldwaik walked down to Moore's house and shoveled it clean. "He's part of the neighborhood, rather than someone who just has business in the neighborhood," Moore said.
Aldwaik ran down a bike thief last summer, and helped return a stolen bike to its owner. During National Night Out, Camden Mart sponsored four block parties, offering free soda, bottled water and ice. He's active in the Camden Lions' Club, as well as supportive of Lee's association.
"He takes pride in his store and I'm hoping that's an infectious thing," Lee said.
That pride is seen in Aldwaik's regular, frequently funny posts to his Camden Mart Facebook page. Last week's post, "Apocalypse Sale Tomorrow," was updated with, "Sorry, Sale is Cancelled."
"I try to be witty," he said. "Sometimes it works."
Sometimes, he learns stuff, too. One customer told him, "'I read on Facebook that you have good coffee.' I didn't know that."
Aldwaik, who is Palestinian, came to the Twin Cities as a student and stayed. He owned a gas station and a smaller market in north Minneapolis but is pretty sure the third time is his enduring charm.
He lives in Brooklyn Center but works 16 or 17 hours a day at the mart and hopes to move to Camden soon. He continues to brainstorm ways to add value, such as bringing in a post office branch and getting a bus shelter installed outside.
"People are counting on us," Aldwaik said. "You ask me where I live? I live here."