1925 Lawrence St, Denver, CO 80202 @ SAKURA SQUARE
Store hours: Mon-Sat 9am – 6pm | Sun 9am – 2 pm
Online orders taken at pacificeastwest.com
Curbside orders taken at 303.295.0293
Despite the current COVID-19 restrictions and distractions, there is one place in downtown Denver that is bustling with customers and keeping its owners and staff as busy as ever. It’s Pacific Mercantile Company and the reason is clear. The Denver community has relied on this Japanese market located in Sakura Square for 75 years to supply them with rice, fresh fish, produce, Japanese and Asian food, staples, gift items and more.
The store is filled with local and imported products from locations such as California and Japan. But the market’s most important offering is the customer service and care of its family owners and dedicated staff. Pacific, as it is affectionately called, is more than a store – it is an integral part of Denver and the Japanese American (JA) community and has often been referred to as Denver’s premiere Asian grocery store. It has been awarded accolades from Westword Magazine, 303 Magazine, the Downtown Denver Partnership and the Japanese American National Museum.
Pacific is currently owned and operated by siblings Kyle Nagai, Jolie Noguchi and Keith Nagai, sanseis (third generation) who are carrying on the family legacy. “It was our grandfather’s hard work and dedication, which was instilled in us at a very young age, that keeps us thriving. He is never forgotten - he is always with us,” states Jolie.
George Inai (pictured above) founded Pacific Mercantile Company after settling in Colorado post World War II.
The history of Pacific Mercantile Company begins with George Inai, who was born in Tokushima Japan in 1893. He arrived in the U.S. at age 18, married Takako Takeuschi and had four children: Naomi, Susie, Sam and Robert. He ran a small grocery store in Sacramento, CA until the onset of WWII.
Due to the signing of Executive Order 9066, which ordered 120,000 people on the west coast of Japanese descent into concentration camps, George was imprisoned at the Tule Lake War Relocation Center and later transferred to the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah.
George had a vision to open another store once the war ended and chose Colorado as the new home for his family. “It was because of Governor Ralph Carr that our grandparents were able to move their family to Colorado after the war. He was the only governor that welcomed Japanese Americans into his state,” said Jolie.
George Inai founded Pacific Mercantile Company after settling in Colorado post World War II. Inai wanted to name his new store Nippon Market, but Governor Carr deterred him from using that name because of the lingering animosity between Americans and those with Japanese ancestry. After much thought, Inai come up with the name Pacific Mercantile Company because of his connection with California and the Pacific Coast. The store was originally located on Larimer Street and moved to its current location at 1925 Lawrence Street in 1972 when Sakura Square was formed by Japanese American community members as a result of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority initiative.
Reminisces Jolie: “The memories we have of the old store on Larimer Street are the wooden floors, which our dad helped build, and the umeboshi and rakkyo were stored in wooden barrels. My grandma was always cooking in the small kitchen in the back of the store and the smells of her cooking lingered to the front of the store, inviting customers to come in. A lot of our customers entered through the entrance in the back for they did not know we had a front door. This happened especially on Sundays because the Denver Buddhist Temple families shopped after service and walked down the alley to the back door.”
Pacific grew by building a sense of community among its customers, including making grocery deliveries those who could not reach the store. As a result, a great deal of loyalty exists from the generations of families of those original patrons. In fact, many people still refer to the store simply as “Inai’s.” Pacific has also contributed to many Japanese, Japanese American and Asian community organizations over the years as a sponsor, donor and patron. They have been a festival partner in the Annual Cherry Blossom Festival with their popular shaved ice booth for many years, offering a cool treat to attendees each June.
Last year, Japan America Society of Colorado chose Pacific as one of its Meet and Greet stops for Kumamon, the adorable bear mascot of Kumamoto Prefecture in southern Japan. In addition to seeing Kumamon dance and taking photos with the lively bear, shoppers were treated to a tasting of foods from Kumamoto.
Both Jolie and her daughter, Alyssa Noguchi, are part of the Japanese American Community Graduation Program Committee which has been providing scholarships to graduating high school seniors in the JA community for more than 60 years. Alyssa is also an alumni of the Mirai Generations Leadership Program (MGLP), presented by Sakura Foundation, and as an MGLP committee member contributes to the structure and content of its programming. Community members also see the Pacific team at JA community events presented by organizations such as Nikkei-jin Kai of Colorado, the Japanese American Resource Center of Colorado, Sakura Foundation and the Asian Chamber of Commerce.
In addition to supporting organizations, Pacific supports local companies such as Infinite Harvest of Lakewood, a local hydroponic vertical farm growing non-GMO, clean and sustainable grower of micro-green and lettuce. Says Sherry Cree, Vice President, Sales & Marketing “Our produce used to be sold to high-end restaurant exclusively through food/produce distributors. When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down restaurants, we changed our focus to directly serving consumers through grocery stores and online sales. When I reached out to Jolie at Pacific Mercantile, she was all about offering the highest quality produce to her customers and supporting local and sustainable businesses like Infinite Harvest! She is not only welcoming and caring as a person but also a very sharp, forward-thinking business owner who believes in offering quality to her community and understands the importance of supporting a local and sustainable business like us.”
Although downtown Denver has experienced many changes over the years, Pacific remains a stalwart tenant for Sakura Square LLC:
“Pacific Mercantile has been the anchor for Sakura Square for several generations. Through the years, they have not only been a place to shop for our Japanese food and goods, but an important community gathering place to meet our friends and family as well. Pacific has been the glue to bind our community together. We are grateful for the close relationship that Sakura Square and Pacific Mercantile has developed by working together since we originally opened. I wish them continued success in the future as another generation of the family looks to continue the Pacific Mercantile legacy.”
- Gary M. Yamashita,
CEO of Sakura Square LLC and Executive Director of Sakura Foundation
The Pacific team has maintained its operating hours throughout the pandemic and has experienced an increase in online and shipping orders. All employees wear masks and cleaning throughout the store has increased for the care and safety of the customers. In-demand items have included rice, tofu, canned fish and canned inari (deep fried tofu pockets used to make sushi).
Pacific is now a fourth-generation business with Alyssa, who is currently learning the different aspects of the business, as well as Kelli and Kristi Nagai (Keith’s daughters) in the near future.
States Alyssa: “For me, the store is more than just a place to buy groceries. It’s home. I’ve grown up in Pacific and the people that work here aren’t just employees, they’re family. People don’t come here just to shop, they come for a sense of community.”
“Growing up in the community, I never thought of what it meant to me but now that I’m growing older, I realize that it’s a place where I feel a sense of belonging, people understand who I am. It’s pretty unbelievable to me that the store has been open for 75 years; that my great-grandpa came to America not knowing any English and had this goal to open a store.”
“My family persevered in camp and still managed to keep the store alive and well in an entirely new state. I never thought that this would be where I ended up, but I feel a sense of duty to my family and I honestly can’t imagine a life without Pacific. I want to keep this going as long as possible.”
Jolie adds, “With the legacy of what my grandparents, mother and father, and uncles taught me Pacific Mercantile Company will hopefully be around for another 75 years! We would not be here without the caring families, organizations and partnerships supporting us for all these years. We thank you ALL from the bottom of our hearts.”
My family immigrated from Japan to Lima, Peru and during WWII they were forcibly taken and incarcerated in a concentration camp in Crystal City, Texas. After the war ended, we moved to Denver and found an inclusive and supportive Japanese American community on the Sakura Square block anchored by the Tri-State/Denver Buddhist Temple and served by Pacific Mercantile. The Inai family, the founders of Pacific Mercantile, through their friendly and caring manner, created a community gathering and connecting point that has been sustained to today. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to my future wife Teri, who had worked at Pacific, by Mr. George Inai, head of the Inai family and a great friend to many in the community.
- Charles Ozaki, Board member of Sakura Foundation & Board Chairman of Sakura Square LLC
For me, Pacific Mercantile is the one of the few places in Metro Denver I can reliably find ingredients for Japanese home cooking. My partner grew up in Japan and I lived in Ishikawa and Kanagawa prefectures for three years. For both of us, foods like takenoko gohan, natto and tsukemono are comfort foods and we’ve been expanding our Japanese cooking repertoire in quarantine together. I also love that Pacific Mercantile is a local small business and that in shopping there I can contribute to the Sakura Square community.
- Karin Thompkins, Pacific Mercantile Company Customer
Written by Stacey Shigaya as appeared in Asian Avenue Magazine.
Sakura Square has been a central gathering place for the Japanese American community to celebrate our heritage, culture and arts for multiple generations in the Rocky Mountain Region. The Tri-State/Denver Buddhist Temple (TS/DBT) has long been an important component of the block, located here since 1947. Throughout the years there has always been a strong working relationship between Sakura Square and TS/DBT, but they are separate entities and do not share in the ownership or management of the block. TS/DBT which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2016, continues to collaborate closely with Sakura Square to be the focal point of many Japanese and Japanese American cultural activities including the annual Cherry Blossom Festival.
Sakura Square LLC which was established in 2014, is a for-profit entity that owns and manages the operations of Sakura Square which includes the 199-unit Tamai Tower Apartments, office/retail space, parking facilities and common area. The Sakura Square management team and staff are employees of the LLC. Sakura Square LLC is owned by Sakura Foundation, which is a non-profit organization whose mission is to: “Sustain the Tri-State/Denver Buddhist Temple and celebrate Japanese American heritage, culture and community”.
Sakura Foundation was established in 2014 as a result of a re-organization within Sakura Square and was previously operated as Tri-State Buddhist Church Apartments, Inc. (TSBCAI). True to its charitable mission, Sakura Foundation is committed to preserving Japanese and Japanese American culture and heritage through programs, events, grants and scholarships. Sakura Square is a hub where many Japanese American community organizations continue to meet regularly.
It is important to appreciate the significance of this particular block as it represents what remains of a once active Japanese and Japanese American community with residences and many small businesses. After World War ll, many who were incarcerated in the various concentration camps migrated to Colorado because of the welcoming attitude of Governor Ralph Carr inviting them to the state. This was a courageous and bold stance taken by the governor to defend the civil rights of our Japanese community, as this “open arms” attitude was not popular with many of the citizens of Colorado and ultimately cost him his political career. It was in this lower downtown Denver area, which at the time was depressed with rundown buildings, shabby bars and brothels, that our Japanese community was allowed to relocate and settle. Despite the poor conditions, a thriving Japanese community was established with Japanese merchants that operated grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, small shops and businesses.
This Japanese community neighborhood was doomed to be displaced when the Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA) announced in the 1960s that it would initiate the Skyline Urban Renewal Project to redevelop a 30-block contiguous area in lower downtown Denver. The strategy of this project was to clear the area of the outdated and dilapidated buildings, bars and cheap establishments, in hopes of attracting new businesses and economic revitalization. The block that the Denver Buddhist Church (DBC, the name at that time) occupied, was in this path of this redevelopment and would have forced it to be displaced. It was with this threat of having to relocate that the vision for Sakura Square and Tamai Tower was inspired, to establish the Tri-State Buddhist Church Apartments, Inc., to develop the block surrounded by Larimer, 20th, Lawrence and 19th Streets. TSBCAI was chartered on April 6, 1962 by legal counsel Minoru Yasui and incorporated on April 9, 1962. The purpose of the new entity was to provide low rent housing for our elderly Issei. The stated objective was to “acquire, provide and maintain housing facilities and services for elderly persons, especially designated to meet physical, social and psychological needs of the aged, and to contribute to their health, security, happiness and usefulness in longer living”.
After much discussion among leaders from the DBC and TSBCAI boards and other stakeholders, it was decided to undertake the project under the following requirements: (a) TSBCAI would develop the whole block except the existing church facility and (b) DBC would remain but would have to refurbish the outside of their building. To accomplish this Step (a) TSBCAI looked to the FHA 236 program which enabled the project to build a housing complex that would also include commercial spaces for the Japanese businesses that were forced to relocate. Thus, this project would become the heart for Japanese business and culture for the Rocky Mountain area. On March 10, 1971, the property was purchased from DURA for $188,800, Bertram Bruton and Associates was selected as the architects, Titan Construction was the contractor, Tawara owned Bonsai Nursery donated the trees and shrubs and the Japanese Gardeners’ Association donated the landscaping labor for the Japanese garden.
The original plan for Sakura Square included a 20-Story residential tower with 204 independent living apartments with recreational and community rooms located on the penthouse level. The bottom two levels of the complex were designated for commercial use. The groundbreaking ceremony held on March 17, 1971 with Mayor William McNichols and the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) officials in attendance. The Project was named Sakura Square-dedicated to the commemoration of the men and women of Japanese ancestry who brought Japanese art, religion and culture to the region and to those who continue to sustain this cherished heritage.
The original commercial tenants included:
Pacific Mercantile Company – Yutaka Inai, Proprietor
Haws and Company – William Haws, Proprietor
Granada Fish Market – Frank Torizawa, Proprietor
Kyoto Restaurant – Seiji Tanaka, Proprietor
Akebono Restaurant – Fred Aoki, Proprietor
Nakai Gift Shop – Mary Nakai, Proprietor
Sakura Beauty Salon – Mae Sawada, Proprietor
The Sakura Square Grand Opening was held on two weekends: May 12-13 and May 10-20, 1973. The ceremonies consisted of the dedication of Sakura Sqaure and Tamai Tower, the first Cherry Blossom Festival and a Wisteria Festival (Fuji Matsuri) which included Japanese cultural and art performances.
An important component of Sakura Square is the Japanese garden located in front of Tamai Tower which represents an oasis of tranquility in the downtown Denver urban environment. The garden pays tribute with monuments to honor three individuals that exhibited personal and professional sacrifice for our Japanese and Japanese American community with their selfless acts of giving.
Ralph L. Carr was the Governor of the State of Colorado when World War ll broke out. His stand in defending and welcoming Japanese Americans to Colorado after the war cost him his political future, but his steadfast support for their rights attracted many to relocate to Colorado to enhance the Japanese community as we know it today.
Minoru Yasui was a community leader and civil rights activist who went to court to challenge the legality of government actions that restricted the rights of Japanese Americans. He was so committed to this cause that he spent nine months in solitary confinement to question the government’s right to discriminate against Japanese Americans based solely upon their race.
Reverend Yoshitaki Tamai devoted 53 years of his life in spreading the Buddha-Dharma throughout the region and touched countless number of lives. He is remembered for his kindness, dedication and compassion. His personal sacrifice as a young assistant minister in the 1930s allowed the Denver Temple to survive during a financially difficult period. His leadership and example were critical in the Temple gaining strong direction and vision for their future.
As Sakura Square looks forward with anticipation for the many opportunities that the redevelopment of the block will bring, it is important for us to remember the hard work and dedication of those who came before us and built our community. It is with this great sense of gratitude for this precious gift that we have been given, that we embrace our responsibility to remember and honor our Japanese heritage, traditions and cultural past. We must also strive to evolve by keeping our traditions fresh and relevant for future generations. Sakura Foundation is committed to continue to work in partnership with our community to achieve these important goals.
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