This past week I took a small trip back to my childhood. I found myself in Northeast El Paso and decided to go to Furr’s Cafeteria at Sunrise for lunch. I didn’t know it had closed and become a church.
At that moment, it seemed like everything I remembered from Sunrise Shopping Center as a kid was long gone.
But then I saw it.
Almost every weekend my grandmother, Josephine Zimmerman, would take us to Furr’s Cafeteria for lunch. I would always eat the same thing, the chopped steak with okra and mashed potatoes. In fact, when I eat at the Furr’s out on I-10 I still eat the same thing!
After lunch, we would walk around Sunrise while my grandmother was shopping. When she went to the Hallmark store, I would go into Rita’s Fantasy Shop.
Growing up I would never miss an episode of Dr. Who on KCOS. Even today, when it’s on, I am glued to the television wherever I may be. As a kid, I would dream of having the TARDIS materialize in my bedroom and the Doctor taking me on as he latest companion as we traveled through time and space.
Between each episode, which aired at 9 pm Saturday, I would need to get my Dr. Who fix somehow. That’s where Rita’s Fantasy Shop would come in. I was able to get anything related to Dr. Who, and did I ever! I bought the magazine, the comics, the small pewter figurines. Anything related to Dr. Who, I would buy there.
It wasn’t only Dr. Who. I would buy the old ROM Space Knight, Blue Devil, Youngblood, Nomad and so many more. Then there were the games! I was stuck on Dungeons and Dragons.
Anything even remotely related to the game, they had at Rita’s.
These memories and more came flooding back as I was walking towards the shop’s door. I began to wonder if it would be the same people who ran it back then were still at it. Would they still have racks of comic books, dice, figurines, games and more?
Or, would could it have just become another generic corporate attempt at preserving the past?
As soon as I opened the door, I was hit with decades worth of comic book scents. (Yes, comic shops and bookstores have their unique scents.) Suddenly, more memories came flooding back.
There were thoughts, again, of Desiree Wheatley, who was taken from all of us way too early. Memories of Paul Strelzin and Mr. Richards from H. E. Charles, who would let us play role-playing games after school in Mr. Richards’ classroom.
There were also thoughts of the guys I used to play games with Robert, Jason, Toby, Omar. We would spend lunch period creating characters for Dungeons and Dragons. When we would get together, Rick would do his level best, as Dungeon Master, to try and kill us off.
Walking in, the only thing to have changed at Rita’s was the name and the titles of comic books. Rita’s is now Sunrise Games and Comics, and is owned and run by Cora Garcia.
“I took over the shop in 1990,” said Ms. Cora. “It opened as Rita’s in April of 1989.” I told her I was surprised that the shop was still open, and that’s when she began to talk about her customers.
Actually, “customers” is not the right word. The people who visit the shop are family.
“My soldiers come and go,” says Ms. Cora, talking about those who visit her shop. “They are the ones who have kept me going.” Before we began talking Ms. Cora was spending time with a customer, treating him as if he were her very own grandson. She started her story with him.
“That man who just left,” she said, “he is a soldier. He came in one day and asked me if I did pulls (setting aside the items he wanted to purchase as they came in).”
The first thing she asked him was if she could have his name tag and unit patch, on her wall. She keeps track of each soldier who comes into her store. Keeping in touch with them, remembering birthdays, and having them over for Thanksgiving.
The soldier promised to bring her the patches.
“He filled out the sheet but didn’t put his name down,” she said. “He put his phone number down, and what he wanted, but no name. So, the following week, I’m doing the pull. ‘Mr. X’ is who he became, and he loves it.”
Mr. X, when he was in the store, he didn’t seem a customer at all. He did seem like a son, or grandchild coming to visit.
“How do I say it,” Ms. Cora began telling me her story. “The soldiers. They are the most loving, most caring; they are fabulous. When they are transferring, they come to me and tell me they are leaving. Of course, it tears me up that they are leaving. When they are getting out, going overseas, getting deployed, it tears me up.”
Ms. Cora is attached to the soldiers who come into her shop. They have become part of her family, a part of her. When they come in to say they are leaving, she spends as much time as she can talking to them. There is the talk of memories, tears, and lots of hugs. They always ask for hugs.
“When I give them a hug,” she says, “I give them a blessing.”
Ms. Cora began to tell me about Jason, one of the soldiers who always came into her shop.
“He looked every day of twelve years old,” Ms. Cora said. “No facial hair, no nothing. Married. My heart just poured, I just loved him.”
He came in one day to tell her he was being deployed in two weeks’ time. She was saddened when she learned that he was leaving before Thanksgiving.
“I told him,” says Ms. Cora, “you tell your unit that comes in here, and I’ll make them a Thanksgiving dinner.”
And she did.
There were turkeys, hams, all the trimmings. She didn’t know how many they were going to have.
“There was a lady who comes in and asked me what I was doing,” Ms. Cora recalls. “I was setting the tables. She asked me why I didn’t tell her what I was doing. I had a few pies, but not too many. So, Ms. Peacock went to Albertson’s and bought two cakes, six pies and brought them to me.”
Ms. Cora told me she was shocked. She didn’t know the community cared for these soldiers as much as she did.
“Jason came, and brought his wife,” she said. “She was pregnant.”
While Ms. Cora was getting everything ready to serve, Jason told her he had brought her an early Christmas gift. She asked him to open it for her.
“He gave me a Darth Vader,” she says pointing at the gift, displayed on one of her shelves.
Then, Ms. Cora was quiet.
“He didn’t make it back,” she said, in almost a whisper.
“But, I have a Darth Vader from him, and I’ll treasure it till the day I die.”
I’ve met many a shopkeeper in my life. Most are married to their business and the items they sell. They think of bottom lines and profit margins. Ms. Cora, she thinks of people. The ones who come to her store and visit with her. She thinks of them and their families and what they may be going through.
For the soldiers, she also thinks of what could happen to them, or the loneliness of deployment.
She loves every soldier who comes into her shop.
“There is a guy that used to tease me, Jesse Wiseman,” she says. “Of course, I didn’t call him Wiseman.” (You can guess what she did call him…)
“He would tease me like you wouldn’t believe, and I would tease him back,” says Ms. Cora. “For my birthday he brought a cake in with seventy-nine candles. He said we couldn’t light it because the fire department said it would be a fire hazard.”
About a year and a half ago he came to tell Ms. Cora that he was leaving the Army. Even now she still receives flowers from Jesse and his mom for her birthday.
Just then, two soldiers walk into the shop. “Hi darling,” she calls out to them. They both smile when they see her, come over and hug her.
“It’s very inviting,” says Sonny Ochart of Ms. Cora’s shop. “I enjoy it. Cora is very nice. She’s really sweet.”
“Not really,” Ms. Cora whispers under her breath, and the guys start laughing.
“I just enjoy how it is, I love it,” Sonny says.
“It was just one day that we started talking about playing Magic, and we just showed up here,” says Hunter Hayes. “She welcomes us!”
“She’s awesome,” says Sonny. “She made me a cake for my birthday,” said Hunter.
“I make cakes, I make cookies, I do anything,” says Ms. Cora. “They don’t get homemade stuff.”
On Thursday evenings she makes cookies, cakes, and brownies to pass out to the people who come into the store and play games. Then, when the soldiers are deploying, and they come in the story, Ms. Cora loads them up with games and books they can play while they are over there.
“I give them Magic, D&D,” says Ms. Cora. “I give them things they can read and do.”
There was one time that she crocheted dice bags when one soldier came in to say he was deploying. She made as many as she could and gave them to everyone that needed one. Red, white and blue dice bags.
“When he was in Afghanistan,” Ms. Cora says, “he was playing with someone else. They never met each other here at the store, but they met there, and both knew where each other’s bag came from.”
Another time, until she simply couldn’t afford it any longer, she was sending boxes of games, cards, cookies, Pringles to soldiers over in Afghanistan and Iraq.
I have so many memories of my time at Cora’s store. The books I’ve bought, the games I’ve played, the people I’ve met. So many memories, and each one of them as fresh as if it were yesterday. It all came rushing back.
The soldiers who visit her store, who become part of her family, I can only imagine the memories they carry with them.
The stories they will tell of how the eighty-something Ms. Cora and eighty-one-year-old owner of a comic and game store took them in as part of her family and loved each one of them unconditionally.
She is an amazing woman – just like her soldiers.
“They are the ones,” says Ms. Cora of the soldiers from Ft. Bliss, “that keep me going.”
She takes a moment and looks around her shop.
“Like Mr. X, his name is Dean, he brings his daughter in, and she throws her arms around me and says she would like to hold me all day. He hugs me when he comes in and leaves. I have a couple of civilians that do the same thing, but honey, it’s the military.”
For a moment she just sat there, quietly.
“I need them…I need every one of them. And, they make my day.”
If you’re in the Northeast, hell, even if you are on the outer edges of town, take a trip to Sunrise Games and Comics. You’ll fall in love with Ms. Cora.
Sunrise Games and Comics is in Sunrise Shopping Center at 8500 Dyers, Suite 16. They are open seven days a week. You can also give Ms. Cora a call at 915-757- 0700