Mid-afternoon in Baghdad's Honey Market, and business is brisk. An Iraqi woman buys a fluorescent light bulb. A Frenchman pays for a stack of Nicorette, three cans of Coke, and a bottle of water with a $100 note.
The Iraqi manning the cashier, Khaled Anton, starts counting out change in a mixture of dollars and Iraqi dinars.
Hundred dollar notes are a matter of course for Anton, 54, an Iraqi Christian who took early retirement from his job with the tourism ministry to set up his two-story shop off a traffic roundabout in northeastern Baghdad.
Over the years, the Honey Market has become a mainstay of the capital, offering up a precious supply of imported foodstuffs and other essentials to a mixed crowd of middle-class Iraqis and foreign expatriates in search of basics or a little bit of home comfort.
The day before, traffic in the shop was intermittent. Coalition troops had cordoned the area, setting up random checkpoints. Only two days earlier, a car bomb had gone off on the 14th of July bridge, killing six Iraqis and one U.S. soldier. Rumor had it that another car bomb was targeting the neighborhood.
"Hello, Mr. Kim!" Anton nods to a Korean man who rushes through the door and up the stairs where the store displays cans of soda and a wide selection of imported chocolate candies.
"Business looks good, but it is slow," said the shopkeeper. "A lot of foreigners left. Just to keep themselves alive."
He's come to accept it as part of the way of doing business. "We work [but are] not in a good mood now," he continued. "We're just keeping things going."
Anton and his brother-in-law and partner, Saad, have been keeping the Honey Market going for 14 years. The only time they've had to stop operating was during the war last year.
"We closed two days before the war, and then we opened again after everything settled," he explained. The store was one of the few that escaped damage or looting right after the war.
Even the violence last month didn't faze the shopkeeper. Most of his merchandise comes from wholesalers in Jordan. When the main highway from Amman to Baghdad shut down mid-April and truck drivers transporting the goods refused to travel on the back roads, the shelves remained half-empty for several days.
Open for business
But the Honey Market remained open, selling produce, meat and pastries from two local markets.
The supply routes are virtually back to normal now, and a glance around the shop is confirmation. There are brands from the United States, Europe, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq.
Products range from dried sheets of Barilla lasagna to El Paso taco shells, Heinz ketchup to Nutella chocolate spread, Lady Speed Stick deodorant to Windex spray cleaner, Kent cigarettes to Romeo Y Julieta cigars. Everything is laid out over two floors and a mezzanine entrance. Alcohol is sold next door in a separate shop.
Most things are tagged in dollars. "It's easier for us," said Anton. "With the inflation of the dinars, the dinar could go up and down six or seven times a day. It's better for most of our customers to pay in dollars." Smaller items, like chewing gum and local goods like pistachios or almonds, are charged in dinars.
Prices are reasonable, compared to other local shops, as well as back home. A large box of Rice Krispies costs about $3.20, while a Cup O'Noodles will set you back sixty cents. A bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from California is around $12.
According to Anton, not much has changed for him since the removal of Saddam Hussein. The only significant difference is the lack of paperwork. Under Saddam, Anton would spend days at various government ministries to obtain the required licenses to import certain goods. Otherwise, "business is the same mostly," he explained.
Anton travels abroad regularly to keep abreast of trends. His mother lives in Jordan, where he will often drop into grocery stores and supermarkets to see what they are stocking. He also watches satellite television to spot the latest fad.
Over the years, the shop owners have expanded cautiously, carefully timing the extensions and investing in periodic renovations.
But as the shop's profile increases, so do the risks. People “think we are printing money, but we are not," said Anton. "It's a normal profit. But it looks like a nice, beautiful shop."
Nice enough to attract the odd shoplifter. The latest addition is a in-store camera system that Anton said is designed to let customers know "we are watching them."
But the shopkeeper still has high hopes, even if their realization might be long in coming.
"What we want is when everything is all right, that companies are okay, they come to rebuild," he said. "We want to see many companies rebuilding. From these, then we can grow our business."
But money is not that important. Like many middle-class Iraqis in Baghdad, Anton explained, "We just want a normal life, a normal profit.... We want to live peacefully, where nobody can attack me or kidnap me."