It might be difficult for readers of this blog to understand exactly the kind of town I live in. Our kids used to describe it to their college friends and urban colleagues, and the usual response was disbelief, because there is so little to do here. It is no longer the cozy and somewhat vibrant town we moved to around 25 years ago, and from tales I have enjoyed from our plumber (one of my favorite people in town), it is not the same town it was when he was growing up.
Our town used to have a courthouse square as its hub, and a small university a mile down the road from the square. The square is situated at the highest point in town, just a little south of the railroad tracks, and it used to be the epicenter of local activity. It had all kinds of shoe, clothes, and food stores, a department store, a hardware store, a drugstore with a soda fountain, car dealerships, and restaurants. According to Rick (the plumber) there was nothing that you could even imagine needing that you couldn't buy on the square. It was a bustling center of commercial activity, particularly on weekends and evenings.
When we moved to town the square was still a little vibrant, but the vibrations were dissipating. There is still some commercial activity on the square. There's a shoe repair shop that repairs zippers for $3.00 (cash), and a great health food store where the proprietor knows all her customers by name and nutritional need, but most of the square is now dedicated to nostalgia and "antique" stores.
Over the past 25 years stores a bit closer to the university have claimed most of the local day-to-day business, and many stores that flourished on the square back in the day re-located to a west-side strip mall that was near the town's three grocery stores.
A grocery store know as "Eisner's" predated us. By the time we got here it had been bought by Jewel, but local people still called it "Eisner's." Jewel was then taken over by the IGA, which was formerly located down the street a bit (Michael likes to quote me as saying that they even moved the cigarette butts to the new location). Across the street was Wilb Walker, another local grocer that was in direct and friendly competition with Eisner back in the day. Wilb's (we called it Wilb's, but some people called it Walker's) was the cheaper store. Ten years ago we got a "Super Walmart," (one with groceries) a mile or two down the road to the east, and Jewel closed its doors. Wilb's remained the only west-side grocery store.
When Wilb's was taken over by County Market, we still called it Wilb's. The same people worked there, and it still looked pretty much the same. The prices were a bit higher, but socially-responsible people shopped there because it wasn't Walmart. I would still see "socially-responsible" people at Walmart though.
The big buzz in town last spring was that County Market was getting a new building. This meant that Wilb's would be torn down. Wilb's was cold, and it was kind of dreary. It was also kind of limited compared to the supermarkets that Michael and I visit when we go out of town. The new prefabricated building, complete with a vast parking lot and a second story coffee area, went up really quickly, and the grand opening was scheduled for Tuesday at 5:00.
Michael and I had the evening free, so we decided to go and see the store. We didn't go at "Grand Opening" time, but we went a bit later in the evening. We did hear that people were lined up outside. A local first.
The vast parking lots were full, and we barely found a parking space. I have never seen so many people in cars turn out for a local event that didn't have something to do with sports or country music. The place was packed, and to add a bit of the surreal to the situation, there was live music. The uncle of a harpist from another town manages the store, so he asked her to play for the opening. It added a certain panache to the occasion. Surreal panache. When have you ever seen (or heard) a harpist in a grocery store?
The people I saw in the "organic" area ("I'm not here to buy anything, I'm just looking around") agreed that the prices were higher than the prices at the health food store on the square. They would have been in the old County Market as well. That brief moment of having the harp-charged air filled with eager people who had just entered the store's produce area (and it is a nice looking produce area, complete with a tractor) was rather exciting. On top of all the excitement were free gifts: the choice of a free plastic lemon juicer or a plastic zester. And they were giving away ballpoint pens too.
The harpist stopped playing about 15 minutes after we arrived, and the muzak and white noise took its place. Then it became just a store.