Dr. Cheng-San Chen is a short man. His face, though abundantly wrinkled, breaks into a grin as he tells me his age. “Probably I’m the oldest store owner around here,” he laughs. “I will be 70 years old this year.”
Chen—better known to Harvard students as Louie, the eponymous owner of Louie’s Superette, located at 26 Surrey Street (mere feet from Mather House)—seems eager to talk to me. “I like Harvard students,” he tells me. “They are all smart; they will be future leaders.”
Coolers hum audibly behind us as we talk, the countertop that separates us barely visible beneath an odd impasto of flashy energy bars, individually wrapped candies, and various official documents that Chen presents to me over the course of our interview. When I ask him how to spell his name, he thrusts his hand into a pile of papers on the counter and presents me with a business card.
Any Louie’s regular will tell you that the owner can’t stop talking about politics. Within minutes I’ve heard about Ronald Reagan, IR accounts, and Chen’s views about social security. Talking to students about politics and their own passions, he tells me, is one of his greatest joys.
Though the jobs he’s held in his lifetime are many and varied, that of a convenience store owner stands out. It’s the personal interactions that get to him, he tells me. “Some students, after 10 years, they come back, they ask me if I still remember them,” he recalls fondly. “I tell them yes.”
Chen grew up in Taiwan, the eldest son of poor rice farmers. He did undergraduate work in mathematics, spent a mandatory year in the army—eventually rising to the rank of Second Lieutenant—and then moved to America to pursue an advanced degree in Buffalo, N.Y.
Chen initially intended to return to Taiwan after receiving his Ph.D. in biophysics, a nascent field at the time, but he remembers being told, in so many words, that he knew too much. “They told me, ‘Your career is too advanced,’” he recalls. “They said they cannot use me.” Faced with this predicament, Chen decided to make the United States his home.
What followed was a whirlwind of employment: an assistant professorship at the University of Pittsburgh for four years; a brief stint as a data analyst for Xerox; and a move to Boston in 1982 to work for the Digital Equipment Corporation, a now defunct computer manufacturing company that at the time was second only to IBM in the field.
It was during his 10 years with DEC that Chen stumbled upon Louie’s Superette, a small convenience store run by the original owner, Louie G. Palucci. He applied for a job at Louie’s in addition to his DEC employment. In 1987, the ownership of the store was up for grabs: Chen decided to embrace the opportunity.
When I ask him about the early years, Chen rattles off a short list of grievances, among them a fire that left the store inoperable for eight months. Before long he’s discussing being robbed at gunpoint.
“They point a gun at me,” he says, chuckling at the memory. “I asked them, is that a real gun? They said yes. Is that a real bullet? They said yes.”
Was he scared? Not at all. “You know what I told myself? My life is in the hands of God. If God says, ‘Louie, your job is done, go home,’ then I wouldn’t be here. If God says, ‘You still have some work to do,’ then I will stay.
”It’s a stoic response, one in keeping with a line he deals out frequently: “It’s good, it’s bad.” When I ask him about money, his response doesn’t surprise me. “Money, it’s good, it’s bad.” Though he refers often to the childhood poverty he escaped, money is not, for him, the ultimate solution: “To me it’s most important to do something interesting and challenging. Then you don’t feel tired, you don’t feel bored.”
At this point a customer enters, grabs a bag of chips, and comes to the counter. Chen recognizes her, asks her what her plans are for after graduation. When she mentions returning to Germany, he’s off: telling a story that concerns a former student he knew, a German girlfriend, and a submarine. He ends the story with a German phrase, and the student departs, promising to stop by again soon.
I ask him how many languages he knows. “German, Japanese, Taiwanese, Chinese, English.” But why German? It turns out his twin brother (Chen is the elder by several minutes) was the Taiwanese ambassador to Germany years ago.
When I ask him if he regrets staying in America, his smile briefly fades. It’s the first time he truly looks his age. He tells me he might have been a general in the Taiwanese army, or a university president, or even an ambassador like his brother. “So it’s different,” he says. “But life is one path. When time is gone, it’s gone.”
His grin returns. When I broach the subject of retirement, he laughs. Though he admits he won’t be running the store for the next twenty years, he also doesn’t see himself retiring anytime soon. “I’m very busy,” Chen tells me. “Many people say they like to buy the store from me. But after this, what is my plan? I cannot sit there doing nothing.” I probe Chen a little more about selling the place, and his sole criterion emerges: “You’ve got to be interested in Harvard students. If you’re not interested, forget it.”
Chen does all the work here himself, standing behind the counter for 11 hours every day. I ask him if there’s anything he does to pass the time, any sort of hobby. “I used to play flute,” he says. “But when I moved, I cannot find the flute.”
Louie’s is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year under Chen’s ownership. In that time he has raised two children—both graduated from Columbia University—and made the acquaintance of countless students (among them Al Gore’s daughter and Joe Biden’s niece). He recently welcomed a grandson into the world, he says, gesturing to a wall of photographs behind his counter. His grin is broader than I’ve seen it yet.
He asks, “Is that enough?” I tell him I think so, and make a motion to leave, but he launches into another story, and it’s another 10 minutes before I’m able to exit the store. When I do leave, Chen shakes my hand, tells me it’s been a pleasure to talk, and smiles. “Come again soon,” he says. And he means it.