Back in 1999, Mohammed Islam was talking with the owner of an Indian grocery store on Hope Street. Out of nowhere, the woman offered to sell the store to him. Islam was working in the construction business at the time, and he had no particular designs on running retail. But Islam knew the cuisine well, having been born in Bangladesh and raised in cosmopolitan New York City. Before he knew it, Islam was the owner of Not Just Spices. Business thrived, and two years later, Islam opened Not Just Snacks, a popular Indian restaurant across the street.
“We wanted to give it a shot,” says Islam with a chuckle. “There was no planning.”
Nearly two decades have passed, and Not Just Spices is a pillar of Hope Street, where visitors can track down hard-to-find ingredients for Indian, Middle Eastern, and even Thai cooking. Most Rhode Island shoppers can buy a shaker of powdered curry, but they would have no idea where to find whole curry leaves; ditto for Indian okra and the fist-sized eggplants that are a hallmark of India’s vegetarian dishes. The shop is small but well stocked; Islam says the full inventory is 3,500 to 4,000 items on any given day.
Not Just Spices attracts a mix of different visitors. “We have regular customers,’’ he says, many of whom grew up in kitchens smelling of curry. “But also there are people who are starting out in Indian cooking. They ask about the spices, what they are, how they work. We don’t make lots of money, but I just want to satisfy people with our service.’’ 836 Hope Street