Ruth Yi takes it one day at a time, just as she always has.
While she has only been running Cottage Market on 16th Avenue and Hilyard Street for about three years, her fiercely loyal customers and overwhelming popularity in Eugene may lead one to believe she has been there for decades. Yi said she has “led a very simple life,” but that is only because she has lived a life of transition that has forced her to appreciate the simple things.
Born in South Korea in 1945, Yi’s family lived comfortably until they returned home one day to find their house razed to ashes. Though the Korean War brought a great deal of instability for them, it did not mar Yi’s childhood entirely and, in a way, changed her perspective for the better. “At that time, Korea was a fairly poor country,” Yi said. “But we didn’t feel much of that. We were fed well, we were happy in the church and going to school, getting good grades — what else do you need when you’re young?”
Yi attended the University of Guelph in Canada because her husband had a connection there, and the classes she took helped her learn English, which would go on to fare well for her when she moved to California in 1968. She arrived a month before her husband, so she said she sent him a postcard with a picture of Palisades Park in Santa Monica and a Pacific Ocean backdrop, which she described as “the most spectacular scene in L.A.”
Five years later, she and her husband bought a cafeteria on the second floor of General Telephone Electric, where their window overlooked the exact same visual from the postcard. “Isn’t that amazing?” she said. “I say this story to everybody [who] comes to our house for dinner.”
Despite starting with zero cooking experience, Yi and her husband operated the cafeteria for 13 years. Her customers, employees of the telephone company, taught her recipes. “It was a family, they were so good to us,” Yi said. “They would come and tell me, ‘Ruth, did you know Californians like Mexican food?’ And they would tell me, ‘Let’s do the taco salad this week,’ and they would tell me the recipe.”
“Relationship is always tradeoff,” Yi said. “You’re nice to them, they will be nice to you, right? I think it’s most crucial thing in any workplace.”
Yi carried this sentiment with her after she lost her business and moved to Eugene in 1986. For 18 years, she worked at a dry cleaners, which she said she largely looks back on fondly. What came next, though, still baffles her to this day.
Four years ago, Cottage Market, now known informally among students as “Ruth’s,” was nothing but a garage attached to a fixer-upper. A friend offered Yi and her husband the house to rent out for profit, but once the competitive market began to hinder their business, the city allowed them to operate a store out of the garage. Yi considered the opportunity a gift from the city, so she agreed to open the market. Now, she said she views the fact that she has one of the busiest stores near campus as a gift from God.
“It's unbelievable how kids support me. I'm not the only store here,” Yi said.
Many of Yi’s customers are UO students, and they adore her.
“She’s pretty much the sweetest woman around,” said one of her customers, Jake MacVicar. “Everybody has no choice but to love her. I feel like everybody does in this city, especially all the students.
One regular, Jamie Peterson, described Yi as “one of the nicest people in Eugene.”
“She’s an amazing person,” Peterson said. “She knows my major. She knows the fact that I’m going to be a teacher. She literally just asked me if it was my last term, if I was gonna graduate soon. She asked me if I was staying here.”
Michelle Villa said Yi sang “Happy Birthday” to her when she visited the market on her birthday. “It was pretty great,” she said. “She’s always been very sweet.”
Some have even taken to social media to declare their appreciation for Yi. She struggles to make sense of the outpouring of support from her customers, and the only explanation she can think of is “God’s grace.”
“I’m not the sweetest person in America,” she said. “I'm just old lady with my accent. But when I see them, I feel like they're my grandkids, you know? They're so sweet.”
“I brag to everybody: I’ve never seen one rude person here,” she said. “They make my day, so they make my job.”
Like all her previous jobs, Yi takes the time to get to know her customers on a personal level. Some students even bring their parents to the store when they are in town so they can meet her.
Yi recalled one student who felt comfortable enough to discuss a tough breakup he was dealing with. “We had relationship already, he was not stranger,” Yi said, “and I liked them coming in together. So I used to talk with them, chat with them. That openness — we had the feeling already.”
It has become increasingly difficult for Yi to take care of the store with her husband not being able to contribute as much at his age, she said. Still, her “attitude of gratitude” has not wavered, and she credits her customers for helping her stay motivated. “It’s my customers who bring all the joy,” she said. “They are amazing, I’m very thankful about that.”
Yi may say she has lived a simple life, but simplicity has proven to be a successful recipe for her. She takes an Emergen-C every day for good measure to avoid getting sick, and if she sees a customer cough, she offers them one free of charge. “Once in a while, they just pay the money, but if you pay, you ruin my fun,” she said with a laugh. “Happiness is doing a little extra than you’re supposed to, like giving a little Emergen-C.”