October 12, 2006

Missing Neighborhood Groceries

One of the more unfortunate trends of the current retail era is the "big box" "super" grocery store. While I don't have anything against large grocers per se, I don't really need 93 choices of cereal or 89 types of deoderant ... and the overwhelming amount of merchandise, typically combined with bright lights and poor acoustics, can be stress-inducing instead of a relaxing shopping experience. (Which is one reason I believe the mellower Whole Foods chain is doing so well, earning more profits per square foot by far than a typical grocer.)

But what I really miss is our smaller neighborhood grocery stores, most of which have been forced out of business by the larger super stores. Many of them were chain stores, too, but they were integrated into the local neighborhoods: the Purity Supreme I could walk to in Saxonville, the Nobscot Star that was within long-walking distance on a really nice day when I wanted to spend a morning outside but was otherwise within a couple of minutes of easy-in, easy-out driving. Although Super Stop & Shop is much larger and still less than a 10-minute drive away, it doesn't have the feel of belonging to the neighborhood; it has the feel of a regional retail center (which it is, clustered together with Target, BJ's and soon Lowe's). And with the lengthy driveway into the parking lot, it has anything but a "quick in and quick out" feel.
That makes a different shopping experience from walking to the local, smaller grocery store to pick up ingredients for the evening's meal. The healthy "slow foods," fresh-ingredients traditional eating that's becoming trendy again in some circles, is a lot harder to do when you do your food shopping in an airplane-hanger-sized glorified warehouse. A massive superstore doesn't say "stop in each evening and pick out a few freshest, choicest ingredients for tonight's dinner." It says "load up here once a week, including lots of prepared foods."


  1. One of these days, you need to take a tour of Roslindale Square. Won't take you anywhere near as long as that tour of the North End, but it's an interesting example of a walkable, small "village" center - including a small supermarket owned by a former Star Market manager who always wanted to open his own market. Only problem? It's becoming over-bistroized - how many cute little Italian restaurants does the neighborhood really need? Hmm, maybe I'm just jealous that West Roxbury has an Indian restaurant now and we don't :-).

  2. Indeed I should! Alas it can be a fine line between an appealing urban village center that serves the neighborhood as well as having broader appeal, and overdone upscale. Sure wish someone decided they wanted to open their own small supermarket in Nobcot....

    And by the way, with all the restaurants here in Framingham, we don't have a single Thai place anymore! We do, however, have Indian.

  3. There aren't very many neighborhood grocery stores anymore, but I think the CVS/Walgreens have taken their place. I don't recall my parents buying 36 pack toilet paper, or a case of soda, on the weekly grocery trip, and probably bought less of everything. Maybe the increased amounts of prepared foods contributes to the excess. Everything was made from scratch, so flour and sugar as well as small bottles of spices were common. How many younger people remember the last time they bought flour for baking?
    Places like Cintolos in Framingham are getting scarce. Many small towns still show evidence of corner variety stores that have been converted to apartments. You'll still see a few places in Milford, for example. The closer to Boston, the denser the population, the more you find these places remain, serving a neighborhood.