Saturday, April 17, 2010

Going Without a Grocery Store

The grocery store in my small town closed last week. Before you worry too much about me, though, I hasten to assure you that another company has bought it and will renovate it and re-open it in a month or so. For a long time, we were not sure that even that was going to happen. So we went from worrying that we would be without a grocery store forever, to being relieved that we would only have to do without one for a month or so.

In the weeks leading up to the closure, the shelves got barer and barer. For a while, they kept re-stocking the basics, so even though you could tell something was changing, you still had confidence that you could get what you really needed. The first change was just that variety was reduced, but this was actually somewhat refreshing, simplifying your choices. Then there were things you wanted but didn't really need that weren't there anymore. You saw you could live without those. Then things you thought you needed weren't there any more, and you began to get creative with what was available -- so you realized those "needs" weren't real needs either.

Then they stopped restocking at all. Those last couple of weeks were most bizarre. A lot of people did give up at that point, and drove the extra 20-80 miles to shop elsewhere. But quite a few people continued to go, not so much for the great closing deals (80% off a jar of obscure mustard that you weren't even really sure would taste good, for example), but out of curiosity and maybe nostalgia. Whole aisles were now cordoned off. The meat section was closed. Unrelated items were corralled together at the ends of aisles.

Customers spoke kind words to the staff, and gently asked whether they'd have jobs with the new company. Many would not -- a hard blow in our already-poor area in this uncertain economy.

Occasionally, I would see an image of a grocery store in the paper, and it sent a strange pang through my heart. One was simply in one of the comics on the comics pages -- a cartoon family doing their grocery shopping while the cartoon kids acted up. I studied the drawing with a kind of amazement. "That's right!" I thought. "Most people have ordinary grocery stores, and think nothing of it!" Such an idea seemed exotic and far away. I studied the bananas and apples and oranges in the picture with considerable envy.

It reminded me of seeing pictures of home when traveling abroad, especially in third-world countries. Images of first-world luxury seemed like a far-off dream. I wasn't even sure they were really real.

So, now, I have a hard time believing that we will someday have a normal grocery store again.

The last day, most aisles were closed. About three of them had a few items on a couple of shelves near the aisles. One cash register was open. A few customers milled about slowly and quietly. No one was doing any serious shopping, but everyone tried to buy something, in order to have contact with the last cashier, to justify her last day of work.

Now the store is closed, and we wonder what transformation may be happening behind the dark windows. Many of us try to shop locally as much as possible: the health food store has increased their produce; convenience stores are carrying more basic grocery items than usual. Local restaurants are seeing a boom. My relationship with food seems different now. I have to plan more carefully, think about what I want or need and where best to get it.

It's going to be interesting to see how we all adjust to being without a grocery store for the next month or so. It shakes us not just individually, but collectively as well. In a small town, a grocery store is a common meeting place. Now we find ourselves running into each other in different places -- our collective social life is rearranged. We all relate to our town, and to each other, in new ways. It is actually somewhat refreshing.

The day the new store opens will be a big day. We will feel a sense of relief, and perhaps even amazement, when we all gather back at the site where we used to meet. But it will be different, and we will not be able to help but compare it to the dying days of the old. Our relief will be mixed with sadness for those who lost their jobs.

And we might be sad too for the return to normality after a time demanding creativity and innovation: a time that brought us closer to each other, remembering to rediscover and treasure what we still had.

But that day is not here yet. Now we embark on the new experience of exploring our village in new ways, seeing what we can find, learning what we most need and what we can do without.