One Easy Way to Meet Weird People


I’ve come to take some things so for granted it’s hard to imagine modern life without them:

  • remote controls
  • cell phones
  • text messaging

Thinking about what life was like before these wonders became so entrenched in our lives is startling– completely baffling to the younger generation – but also puzzling to us old codgers.

So let’s talk about the new invention of the grocery store. Whoa! Haven’t they always been around – since maybe Ben Franklin’s day? They were – but the colonists didn’t strut in and grab a shopping cart and waltz down the aisles popping all manner of food selections into a wire basket on wheels. The customers had to wend their way through apple barrels and 50 pound sacks, hemmed together, propped against the walls, holding flour, salt, or maybe cornmeal. You took your shopping list and handed it to a clerk who pulled things off the shelves sequestered from shoppers. Caveat: most of the farming community was so self-sufficient all they needed was salt.

Virgin grocery stores (the uninitiated beginners, the founding fathers – not shoppers who were virgins) started as “dry grocers” – those who sold canned goods and non-perishable staples like noodles (although Italian and German immigrants made that on their own too. The homemade noodles called spaetzle made by the Eisenschenk side of my family were to die for.) If you wanted meat you went next door to the butcher shop and fresh veggies were sold a door or two down the street at the “green grocer.” Since I’m older than dirt, I remember the butcher shop where you waded around in sawdust shavings up to your ankles waiting for your mom to pick out the best chops for tonight’s dinner. These places were where you could chat up all the local dudes and old gents who hung out waiting for someone to join in the local, juicy “gosipteria.” During research for my Patsy adventure I needed to harken back those yesteryears to accurately write about her big banana heist and her epiphany when Virgie brazenly flirts with Guy.

Self-serve started a whole new grocery shopping experience and the grand-daddy of them all is Piggly Wiggly. The first “groceteria” started in big cities mid 1910’s.  One of my favorite authors, Jon Hassler, began his people research at the age of eleven when he worked in his father’s grocery located in Small Town Minnesota. He remarked to Garrison Keillor, another famous Minnesotan, on an episode of “Writer’s Almanac” in 2007, “I’ve always thought of the Red Owl Grocery Store in Plainview, Minnesota, as my training ground, for it was there that I acquired the latent qualities necessary to the novelist… namely the fun of picking the individual out of a crowd and the joy of finding the precise words to describe him.  I dare say nobody ever got more nourishment than I did out of a grocery store.”

Makes me almost wish I could sit and listen, notebook in hand, devoid of my cell phone and tablet, in that very spot on that very barrel and listen and learn. Readers: do you have other writing fantasies?



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