How small grocery stores became illegible

No longer Workers Credit Union, but you wouldn’t know it from the sign.

Another short clip from the book I’ve been working on about my involvement at the food co-op in Orange. 

In 2018, after four years in our storefront location, the big faded “Workers Credit Union” sign was still the most noticeable thing on the front of our building, overriding the messages our own smaller signage was trying to convey. We talked about this at board meeting after board meeting, and everyone agreed: we needed a better sign. But it was surprisingly hard to decide what it should say.

The co-op’s original signage – “Your community market – Everyone can shop – Anyone can join” – seemed to confuse many people rather than enlighten them. After a lot of discussion the board agreed that it was better not to lead off with the fact that we were a co-operatively owned business. But then what should we lead with?

You’d think this would be simple. And maybe it would have been simple in the make-believe days of Castle Rock, when our film-day alter-ego “Hemphill’s Market” and other small stores just like it dotted the landscape of every town and city in America, selling some of this and some of that, some foods coming from nearby and some from the industrial supply streams that had been gathering momentum since the late nineteenth century.

Customers wouldn’t have expected to be able to buy absolutely everything at one store, because there weren’t yet stores where you could buy absolutely everything. Many things would come and go with the seasons. There would be bushels of sweet corn from the farm up the road in August and September and fresh turkeys from another neighboring farm for Thanksgiving. Regular customers would know that the fresh bread came from the bakery by midday on Thursdays and some things might be running low by Saturday because the delivery truck didn’t come again until Monday.

It’s still possible for small grocery stores with variable supply chains to survive in some places, mostly densely-populated urban neighborhoods where there are enough people to support them. They’re often run – as they often always were – by immigrant families. And their speciality items aren’t usually from nearby farms but rather from global circuits of supply that can provide familiar products for people living in diaspora.

Supermarkets have pushed their way into that niche as they have with so many others. A stroll down the so-called ethnic or international aisle of any supermarket is a strange tour of imagined, opportunistic, and hijacked product lines – not, in fact, unlike the simulacrum that was Hemphill’s Market.

Corporate versions of ethnic cuisine, like taco kits and other offerings from Old El Paso (part of General Mills), sit side by side with items from big distributors that have grown alongside immigrant populations themselves, like Goya with its ever-expanding universe of beans and grains fine-tuned to immigration patterns from Latin America and elsewhere. Occasionally an item will make the leap from niche to mainstream, buoyed by culinary trends in sought-after consumer demographics. Think sriracha, its now-iconic status as a kind of hipster ketchup boosting sales of everything from the well-known Huy Fong “rooster sauce” brand created by a Vietnamese refugee in California to versions by Big Food (Frank’s Red Hot, owned by McCormick, now makes sriracha in handy half-gallon containers).

I digress. But maybe not. In the fantastically fragmented, overlapping, shifting flows of foods, images, and desires that make up the contemporary food system, small diversified grocery stores like the one we were trying to bring back in downtown Orange are all but unintelligible in most places, literally hard for people to see and understand.

We carried sriracha too, but it came through the farm-to-table supply chain, in this case from a Connecticut Valley farm making it in bottles bearing the iconic rooster image combined with fearsome dragon wings and a forked tongue. It was familiar and strange at the same time, just as our store was. What could we convey about all this in three or four words on a sign glimpsed by a driver waiting for the traffic light in the center of town to change?

The supermarket’s long shadow looms over the phrase “grocery store” now, implying a larger selection than we could possibly ever offer. “Local food” was our stock in trade, but that phrase carried its own overtones, suggesting the whole food-with-a-social-mission approach that was compelling for some people but alienating for others. Besides, we sold more than just local food. We stocked bananas and lemons and other things that could never be local, but that a lot of our customers expected and wanted if they were going to shop in our store at all. We got those things through Squash, a distributor that was, like Quabbin Harvest, both local and not local, pointing up the slipperiness of the term itself. Probably best to stay away from “local” on the big sign.

“Market” was more promising. It suggested “farmers market” but in a more general way, minus the pop-up tents. It could lean in a boutique direction, but it also invoked a very long history of small-scale vending by people close to the source – covered markets, public markets, market days, market towns. The market encompassed a lot of what food-selling had been before supermarkets made it super. Stripping back down to that old term felt right.

And to get the main idea across to that person driving past who was only going to have three seconds to take in our message, we thought “food” should be somewhere on the sign too. After a lot of discussion and scribbling on sheets of newsprint on the board-room wall one evening, we arrived at a consensus about what should go on the big sign: “Quabbin Harvest Food Market,” with the logo at both ends to sneak the term “food co-op” in there for anyone who happened to notice or care.

Of course, there was no money to pay to have the sign fabricated anytime soon. But at least we finally knew what we wanted it to say.

1 year ago

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