Several Middle Eastern specialty markets clustered along one side of Mt. Auburn Street have become destinations for shoppers looking for authentic Middle Eastern and international products. They offer a dozen different kinds of fresh olives, many soft cheeses, spices, grains and dried fruits in bulk, honeys, tahinis, flat breads, Middle Eastern yogurts, pastries, and prepared foods.
One of the busiest is , at 585 Mount Auburn St. Along with all the foods above, it also has two aisles loaded with fresh produce – peaches, apples, pears, melons, greens, peppers, and tomatoes – different kinds of dried peas and beans, loose-leaf and bagged teas, olive-oil soaps and other skin products, and, most eye-catching, water pipes, or hookahs.
"[Hookahs] are part of our culture," says owner Harry Bassmajian, whose father started Arax in 1974. The store also sells the moist tobacco that's used in the water pipes, which now comes in varieties flavored with molasses, peaches, cherries, and other substances. "Flavored tobaccos really took off about five years ago," Bassmajian said.
Its products come from all over, too, as its sign says ("Armenian and International Specialty Store"). There are teas from India, feta cheeses from Eastern Europe, and of course fresh produce from local markets.
"Everyone wants something different," said Bassmajian, "we try to accommodate."
The phrase is over-used, but Arax is a cultural experience, with an atmosphere that combines an ethnic market, a bazaar, and that fast-disappearing breed: the small grocer. And you can put that in your pipe and smoke it.
The Comic Stop
Whether or not you're a reader of comic books, or their grown-up cousins, "graphic novels," is a fun place to stop in and browse. And, who knows, you might decide it's time to rediscover the fantasy- and art-filled pages of Spiderman, Casper the Ghost, or an edgier contemporary graphic novel.
"I used to stock video games, skateboards, and other products," said owner David Philbrick, who started the business in 1996, in its small storefront just across Main Street from the . Now he focuses on the mainstay of his business: print comic books, graphic novels, and "non-sport collector cards," like Magic the Gathering.
In fact, the other draw for regulars, besides comic books, is a bi-monthly Magic the Gathering tournament held twice a month in the store.
"Magic is still popular," Philbrick said. "When it started in 1993 it was played mainly by college kids; now it's all ages, from nine to adults. (The tournaments) are social events, too, with pizza and drinks."
But for the casual browser – and there's no pressure or attitude on the premises – the attraction is hundreds of colorful, high-energy comics, from DC and Marvel superhero ones to independent novels and collections of contemporary classics, like Watchman. One can also find darker graphic novels that have been made into hit movies, such as Road to Perdition and History of Violence.
For collectors, the store also stocks vintage collectible comics, mainly from the 1960s and '70s.
It's a small storefront, though, so one won't find every comic book or graphic novel in it.
"We have to keep a limit on the stock," says owner Philbrick. He also divulges the latest "big news" in the biz: this coming September, DC Comics and its owner Warner Bros. are planning to restart all 52 of their comic-book series with "issue No. 1."
A obvious marketing ploy, it's still a way for someone to snap up a first issue without paying thousands of dollars for a first issue of, say, Superman or Spiderman from the 1930s.