Editor’s note — Reporting for this story was originally completed in the 2022 fall semester for a JOUR 89A class project titled “Smells Like Zine Spirit.”

A single block of Moody Street in Waltham, between Whitney Street and Taylor Avenue, is home to not one, not two, but three dollar stores. One is the ubiquitous chain store, Family Dollar. The other two, however, are local, family-run establishments, staples of the bustling shopping district: Shah Dollar Value and J & M Dollar Discount. 

Located at the intersection of Moody and Taylor streets, Shah Dollar Value has been owned and operated for fifteen years by husband and wife duo Biba Fatima and Syed Shah. Their prices, Fatima said in a Nov. 14, 2022, interview, “aren’t as cheap as they used to be, but compared to other stores, people don’t think it’s as expensive here.” She continued by saying their commitment to keeping prices reasonable is something “we still have to honor,” and that they are trying their best to do so in the face of inflation. 

The setup at Shah is visually striking: novelty lights flash, spin, and even bubble in the form of small fountains around the store. The Family Dollar, a national chain with a location further north up Moody Street, also carries novelty lighting, but not of the same wild variety Shah does. Winder Mayen, an employee at Shah said they had ordered 50 unique lamps that looked like a tornado spinning inside a candle after Fatima said to put one on display at the counter. Three days later, their stock was emptied. 

SHAH: Shah Dollar Value carries a variety of novelty lighting.

SHAH: Shah Dollar Value carries a variety of novelty lighting.

A block north of Shah, J & M Dollar Discount has been housed on the corner of Moody and Gordon streets since owner Harry Singh opened the store in 2005. He and his family live in Waltham and are frequent customers of Moody’s many grocery stores. They eventually decided to open their own store on the street, figuring that the area’s high foot traffic would bring customers into the store. 

In his 17 years of running J & M, Singh has seen customers “get married, and their kids growing up.” During our conversation,  a customer came in to buy lottery tickets — he greeted Singh with a “nice to see you again.” Singh offered him a cup of tea or coffee while the man sat down at a folding chair, nestled among the various surfaces overflowing with merchandise, to do his scratch-offs. 

“If two or three customers ask for something, we get it,” Singh said, describing the prioritization of customer satisfaction as a key part of his business model. 

Finding everything you need in one store is rare; finding it all to be reasonably priced, as well, is almost unheard of. J & M has a long-lasting relationship with wholesale sellers Singh met at trade shows. Singh said this process was about “finding vendors we know customers can afford to pay.” When he chooses to buy an item wholesale, “[It’s] me saying I’d be [personally] comfortable paying this [price] for this item.” 

On a Monday afternoon in mid-November, it was City employee Eddie Callahan’s first time at J & M. He was immediately enchanted. “This store is awesome,” he exclaimed, after Singh told him they had the exact remote control model Callahan was looking for. “I’m so glad they have this remote … and they have everything,” he said. 

Singh said that as a storeowner, he keeps the needs of the Waltham community in mind. “People aren’t driving Ferraris here. We…keep it [at] Honda Accord prices,” he said.

But when asked what kept customers returning to J & M, Singh did not mention low prices or customer satisfaction: “My personality,” he said with a smile. “How many places do people remember your name?”