Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Neighborhood Market

I'm not old enough to reminisce about shopping at the corner market or the general store, yet somehow I am still overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia for the concept. Just listen to this description of a typical frontier general store in the late 1800's:

(from "The Old West" volume "The Townsmen" Time Life Books)

"But to step inside was to enter a wonderfully self contained world of gentle gloom, muted sounds of leisurely activity, and odd yet familiar aromas. The place smelled of just about everything: the rich fruitiness of plug tobacco, the leather of boots and belts, fresh-ground coffee, cheese, dried and pickled fish and the subtle musty-sweet tang of fresh fabric in bolts. Not an inch of space was wasted. On one side of the interior stood a counter for groceries; on the other, a counter and shelves piled high with dry goods; hardware- along with the proprietors high desk and stool- took up the rear. From the rafters hung vague shapes of hams, slabs of bacon, cooking pots and stocking caps. And arranged around the floor was a treasury of kegs and barrels brimming with sugar, vinegar, flour and molasses; canisters of condiments and spices; sacks of whatever produce the season offered; big glass jars of striped candy sticks and peppermint balls. 

An interior shot of an old general store taken in July of 1936, just six years after the first supermarket, "King Kullen" was built in NYC with the slogan "Pile it high. Sell it low."

The store would have been supplemented with some neighboring specialty stores; the Butcher, the Barber, the Tailor, hardware shops and a farmer's market. My search for specialty shops goes on, and I have to accept that I wont find them all within walking distance of each other, like a community hub, to spend a day shopping and socializing with the merchants and townsmen. This is no longer the world we live in, and I believe we are worse off for it. I suppose this is why the current local food movement appeals to me so much; small businesses, small family farms, local seasonal produce, all the restrictions dealt with by generations past, though now somewhat self initiated, here today in the modern SF bay area. Why would we want to restrict ourselves to a less convenient and usually more expensive way of life? What have we lost by concentrating all of our needs into one massive store where the staff are interchangeable and the products are from locations, sometimes, thousands of miles away.

Now as I've said before, I am not against the idea of imported goods. I don't ONLY buy local products, even produce.But I prefer the smaller, family owned business for many reasons, one of which being the people. When I am standing in the line at safeway as the cashier finishes ringing up my groceries, I prefer pay the bill, load up the car and get home as quick as possible, after all, I have a life to live... right? The cashier steals a fast glance at the bottom of the receipt as he hands it to me and says: "Have a nice day Mr. Greene!" Thank you so much for the artificial experience of shopping in a place where people know my name, I feel so much more enriched for you having followed company policy so diligently. Please stop asking me if I need help carrying my single bag of groceries to my vehicle, it only reinforces the lack of sincerity in your careful adherence to a rule birthed in a corporate marketing meeting, thousands of miles away.

The truth is I want the experience of shopping to be a part of my life, not a distraction from it, not something to rush through. I enjoy driving to Redwood City to buy my favorite German Beer from the small German grocery store/gift shop/beer garden on Broadway street. I like talking to the owner about what's new and I enjoy that he doesn't have to look at a receipt to know my name. I enjoy buying most of my groceries from Crystal Springs Produce, a small, family owned business where a long conversation with the proprietor or even another customer is a normal occurrence and the whole experience adds a breath of authentic life to my normal daily routine.Shopping for and selecting the best food is just as much a part of the experience as cooking or eating. While all the produce is not always local, the business is local, there is a real family, with a real stake in the store's success or failure, and that is something I can buy into. After all, this is not simply survival, this is life.


  1. Well said brother. We should start looking for new place to settle down in the Midwest or something where the big corporations have not taken over the small town life. I do remember going to the general store in Stockton when we were kids. It was a simpler time 25 years ago.

  2. Ernie's General Store right? I remember that too. It is really hard to find those good businesses around, but they are here. The couple that runs this little produce market know the boys by name and always give them a little piece of candy or a pear to munch on while they are in the store. Sometimes they give me free samples of new products that they are stocking or new varieties of fruit so that I can test them out and give them feedback. Its a really great place.