Shopping in New York, Part 2

One of the many things I love about Brooklyn is all the neighborhood stores: the tiny supermarkets, the hardware shops that are so long, dusty and narrow you feel like you’re in a topiary maze, the “specialty service” stores that hearken back to Alaskan-businesses in that they offer so many different services in their efforts to remain competitive with the larger national chain stores. These are the stores which are owned by locals, many of them have been there forever, as evidenced by the dust, and the cluster of regulars which invariably seem to gather round the register discussing scratch tickets and last night’s game.

These stores all have their own special appeal. Sean and I now know which one is most likely to have a certain kind of ice cream, and which usually still has a few Monsters or Red-Bulls hidden away in the back of the cooler when all other stores are out. These stores also have their own personalities, after a fashion. There are certain stores that are kind of scary that I will only pop into during the day, because in the evenings they seem to receive strange deliveries of boxes of unmarked goods, or their entryways are surrounded by perpetually-loitering youths who don’t make eye contact, but you can still feel their awareness of you as you pass. One store has some charmingly skinny, half-feral cats that camp out beneath the shelves. They’re obviously working cats, they don’t want to be petted and they hiss at each other in a competitive way. They eye the doorway like they would consider leaving if they had anywhere else to go, but the door is open, and they don’t venture out.

But there are two things in particular that make shopping at these neighborhood stores an adventure. First, the apparent randomness of what they stock, and second the way they stack what they stock. Allow me to explain.

As I mentioned before, these stores are true small-businesses: family-owned and operated, the kind of stores where it’s not uncommon to see family photos taped next to the register alongside the lotto posters. The folks who work there are often family too, or have worked there so long that they seem like family. There’s a level of intimacy that allows for friendly ribbing and familiar bickering that usually ends with rolling eyes and a huff of angsty indignation, as the person trots off in the direction of a paternal-pointed-finger to tackle some unsavory chore, like buffing the melons … or whatever it is people do in grocery stores. I don’t know, I just shop there, ok?

As charming as the small stores are, it can be frustrating when you are looking for something in particular, something that you’re sure they stock. Because, baby, you can never be sure what you’ll find in these smaller grocery stores. Even the chain stores  have trouble keeping things in stock, it seems, but places like Target usually have the benefit of those business-major-type people who keep track of stuff like demographics and the all important rolls-of-toilet-paper-to-number-of-neighborhood-bottoms ratio.

The smaller stores don’t have that luxury, nor to they have the deep pockets of the larger corporations, which would allow them to keep a nice selection of all your favorite brands readily available. Even if you love FluffyBottoms Toilet Paper, you can never be sure that it will be in stock. Maybe the rest of the neighborhood loves FluffyBottoms Toilet Paper too. Maybe Mister Grocery Store Man didn’t order enough last week. Or maybe he did, but maybe when the shipment of FluffyBottoms Toilet Paper came in there was no room on the shelves to stock it so they shoved it somewhere else in the store. Next to the canned olives, perhaps. It’s been done. I saw boxes of cereal in the produce section last week. So, yeah: if you’re a brand-loyal sort of person, shopping in those little Brooklyn stores might not be your cup of tea. You can’t be too picky, or you’ll wind up traveling all over the city to find your exact brand of TP or you’ll just have to settle for whatever brand is available, otherwise you’ll be wiping your bottom with lettuce leaves.

The other adventuresome aspect of shopping these stores is, since space is at a premium—both in real-estate AND in shelf-space—the smaller stores tend to get creative in how they stock their shelves. The other day I went to pick up a box of Splenda, and the cartons were packed so tightly together I had to use my fingernails to pry out one corner of the box, then pull at the other corner, then back to the first corner, continuing until I could finally squeak that stupid box out of its spot. Unfortunately, it was the same surface-tension that made the box so hard to get out in the first place that was also holding the rest of the boxes in place. When I finally got the box out, about 6 or 7 other boxes went tumbling to the floor. It was like playing sugar-substitute Jenga. I tried to place the boxes back into their respective spots, but without that all-important keystone Splenda holding them in place it was a hopeless endeavor. So I put the other boxes of Splenda on a different shelf, in an area supposedly reserved for Domino’s Sugar (Maybe the order hadn’t come in yet, or maybe the Sugar was now being stored next to the aluminum foil? who knows?)

Besides packing products so tightly it takes the jaws-of-life to remove them, these small neighborhood stores also like to stack their products HIGH. Luckily, they usually do this with light things: toilet paper, kleenex, paper-towels, pumpkins, (ok, maybe not that last one). It is this practice in particular that has wrested me away from some of my brand-loyalties. Now, instead of choosing my paper products by brand-familiarity-to-price-to-cuteness-of-design ratio, I instead select them by whichever package I can knock off the shelf with my stick with the least amount of damage. Really. We’re talking towers of Bounty that reach upwards of 12 feet. They give you those little poles with the claw grip that are supposed to allow you to select a certain package with ease, but those poles weren’t really made to hold too much bulk and weight. Anything larger than a single-roll pack and you’re asking for a soft, highly-absorbent avalanche. It’s generally safest to pick a package that already looks precarious, then poke at it with your grabby-stick until it starts to teeter, then when it falls, catch it one-armed against your chest. My catching skills have improved considerably since moving here, let me tell you.

Unfortunately, my throwing skills still suck, which I guess means I should give up my dreams of pitching for the Yankees.

In spite of the quirks and the occasional inconvenience of not being able to find something really simple, like food coloring, while at the same time being confronted by more cans of out-of-season Egg Nog than one should ever expect to see, I really love the smaller stores in my neighborhood. The shoppers there are just like me: they want to get in, get out, and go home. They’re not the meandering-Wal-Mart-sorts of shoppers with 6 kids in tow and pushing 2 carts full of juice boxes and Fritos. They grab a basket (the small hand-held ones, because you should never shop for more than you are willing to carry up 3 flights of stairs—I learned that early on), they get what they need, and they go. Tack on to this efficiency, these people are just astonishingly patient. Back home, if someone on line at the check out stand was taking an inordinate amount of time counting out exact change, you’d almost instantly hear grumbles from the people waiting. Here, well, New Yorkers are already kind of used to waiting in line, so it doesn’t seem to bother them if Granny wants to fish in her purse for that 15% off coupon for kitty food. It’s no big deal. That’s what iPhones are for.

Did I mention lately I love New York?

I do, I do …

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