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City with big heart comes to merchant's aid after crash

When a car crashed through the plate-glass windows and doors of his convenience store Sunday, smashing valuable coolers that hold the drinks that are the lifeblood of a convenience store, owner Manoj Nampoothiry didn't just have to clean up the mess.

He immediately worried that a storefront that looked like a bodega in Baghdad might mean customers would stay away. No customers for cold drinks means no money for the mortgage or for suppliers.

Nampoothiry even sells gasoline at a 3-cent loss per gallon so people have a dollar or two to spend on a cold drink. That is how vital those coolers are to a man with one store.

"Add in the electricity bill, taxes, all of it, I have to make $500 a day here just to break even," said Nampoothiry.

He worried he would have to lay off employees. He worried that customers would see plywood and find another place to go.

But somehow, in the past three days, the people of Rock Hill and York County did what they always seem to do -- grab somebody on their knees and pick him back up again.

That somebody is actually a bunch of somebodys. Nampoothiry and his wife, Pruvi, are immigrants from India. His sister and brother-in-law, Hemal and Dhrue Patel, also immigrants, all are co-owners of this American Dream store on Cherry Road.

"I'm not in a big chain," He said. "For us, this store is it. All we have."

Starting Sunday, and continuing still, loyal customers have come back. The morning breakfast club of coffee drinkers has come each morning to solve the world's problems. The hot construction workers and utility linemen and so many who make Nampoothiry's dreams come true one cold drink at a time have come back, again and again.

"The first thing I heard from everybody is, 'You need anything?'" Nampoothiry said. "My loyal customers are the greatest. I can't express my thanks enough. I am humbled."

He talked with Frank Wilkerson, who owns other Exxon stations in town. Wilkerson offered help, too.

"That's what you do when somebody has something like this happen," Wilkerson said. "It was unfortunate, and he is a real nice guy."

Nampoothiry was born in Ahmedebad, close to the place that Mahatma Gandhi came from. He came to the United States and worked for his master's degree in computer science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He lived in New York, too.

"Here, I have never felt like 'a foreigner, an immigrant,'" he said. "This is home. Rock Hill has a big heart."

After the family bought the store in 2006, Nampoothiry listened to the regulars. He learned how it was built in 1947; that late founder Boyce Elliott was a World War II veteran who was cherished in Rock Hill; how the fat has been chewed at Elliott's on uncountable days.

So, even though family now works 18 hours a day, seven days a week, Nampoothiry kept the name Elliott's Exxon.

"Rock Hill has a cultural attachment to this place, and the name is a tribute," he said.

So on Wednesday, in the shadow of a building that was damaged, that doesn't even have its own family name on it, Dhrue Patel, Nampoothiry's brother-in-law, used one of those long poles with a suction cup on it to lower gasoline prices to keep customers coming in. Inside, his wife sold cold drinks and smiled and thanked everybody.

Nampoothiry, the computer engineer-turned-entrepreneur, talked to insurance adjusters and contractors and said something I will never forget: "This country rewards the people who work the hardest. I have already been rewarded."

Hard work, friendship, loyalty -- it comes back to those who give it. Again, an immigrant, reteaching all of us Americans born here what we should already know.

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