trade-off

Non-fiction, 11/6/08

I love shopping for groceries. Really, I do. At least twice a week I’ll find myself sauntering into a nearby supermarket, driven by the distant rumblings of hunger and too much spare time, to pick up maybe one or two things on a whim. Whether I actually need this food is questionable, and, frankly, irrelevant. What matters is that it’s there, and I can buy it. Is this a crime? Not in the slightest. Is it troublingly compulsive? Well—you don’t say!

There is a certain joy in compiling lists, clipping coupons and ferreting out bargains that is never lost on me, no matter how trite the occasion. I even patronize different stores for different items, ostensibly seeking better deals but, in reality, I’m simply varying the environs. This useful stratagem—for it is deviously contrived, you see—makes it harder for clerks to notice how often I come in. Brilliant, no? And with a produce stand, public market, and several grocery chains within walking distance of my domicile, I have ample opportunity to indulge my fancy.

As a consumer, I’ve found this surfeit of stores lends itself handily to trifling comparisons—followed by ruthless culling, of course. (Remember, lots of spare time.) I am therefore compelled to address a particular chain, relatively new to Bellinghamsters, that has somehow managed to turn shopping into a trying feat of mettle and endurance.

Trader Joe’s—“Your Neighborhood Grocery Store”. A more comforting slogan was never coined, I’m sure of it.

The proximity of Trader Joe’s to my house is unsettling. If I step out my front door, hang a left, go two blocks, cross James Street and turn right, I’ll soon find myself in front of the modern monstrosity, its automatic doors opening and closing with an audible hiss, like the maw of an air-conditioned abattoir. I know, I know. Bear with me here.

Founded somewhere in California circa 1958, Trader Joe’s started as a chain of convenience stores called Pronto Markets, later changing its name and switching to groceries in the 1960s. The disease, er, grocery chain, now more than 280 links strong, is slowly metastasizing along America’s coasts, already infecting 23 states with no signs of slowing down. Did I mention I’m not a fan?

TJ’s—as I shall gamely refer to it—purports to be an exotic delicatessen, bringing choice morsels from around the world straight to your shopping cart. That is, TJ’s will concoct mildly interesting recipes from ordinary ingredients, package them extravagantly, write colloquial descriptions on said packaging, and throw the end result on shelves with an exorbitant price tag. If the recipe falls into certain “ethnic” camps—such as Chinese or Italian, for example—TJ, being the cosmopolitan merchant that he is, accordingly dons an “ethnic” moniker (in this case, Trader Ming and Trader Giotto, respectively). I find this rather quaint.

For whatever baffling reason, TJ’s stores across the country employ a distinctly Hawaiian theme, replete with kitschy floral uniforms, garish shopping bags and the ingenious motto, “TJ’s leis on the value.” The overbearing employees, beaming with perma-smiles, positively leap at the opportunity to engage you in charming persiflage or guileless inquiry, whether you’d like to or not. In other words, the place is pure evil.

Relevant anecdote: It’s the day after Halloween, and I, being hung-over and shiftless, decide to venture into TJ’s for some free samples. (The store, as it turns out, is not wholly without its merits—they’ve got nice bathrooms and a well-stocked, highly accessible sample counter.) Weaving through the aimless horde of yuppies that is TJ’s clientele, I sate myself on coffee and alphabet cookies, contemplating the quickest route of escape. But I can’t just leave empty-handed (vestigial scruples, perhaps?); I grab some spinach and a bag of carrots and find the shortest checkout line.

I must look downright haggard, because the cashier says, “Have a little too much fun last night?” Hilarious. Feeling slightly spunky or something, I deadpan back, “There is no such thing as too much fun.”

For a fleeting moment she appears chastened, but, recovering quickly, she gives a glib rejoinder: “Ah, of course, no such thing.”

Smiling wanly, she takes my proffered debit card and drops the pretense. She doesn’t even offer me a raffle ticket! At first I am exultant. I have scoffed in the face of their skin-deep sincerity, their obsequious pandering, their maddening peppiness!

But afterward I’m struck by a sobering thought: She was only trying to be nice, and I probably came off as the impatient customer-douche. I don’t hate the place—really, I don’t—and perhaps one day I’ll accept the fact that TJ’s is, by definition, my neighborhood grocery store. We can co-exist peaceably, TJ and I.

Just so long as he keeps cleaning his bathrooms and never, ever discontinues the free samples.

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