City mouse...suburban mouse

June 09,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

A new popular drugstore chain opened up a location only five minutes from our house. A few weeks ago they sent us several coupons to lure us over there, including an offer to give us a $25 gift card if we only switch our prescriptions from our regular pharmacy to theirs. I thought about it, weighing convenience and the temptation of that gift card. Our current pharmacy is in our old neighborhood, convenient to that house, but almost 15 minutes door-to-door now from where we live. But we've been using that old pharmacy for years now. I fill T.'s prescription for her migraine medicine there, and indeed every other prescription we've ever had. The pharmacist has seen us through several bouts of bronchitis (mine), stomach viruses (both kids), sinus infections (mine and the kids'), bad reactions to wasp stings (Scott), and plenty of other medical ups and downs. She is an older, no-nonsense woman who takes her job seriously and who always recognizes me whenever I stop by, and who knows my kids by name.

It's getting more and more difficult to find people like my pharmacist, or to shop at smaller, independent stores. They are constantly being swallowed up by the larger mega-stores, and shopping is slowly turning into less of a social, personal experience--becoming more about the products and gadgets and packaging, the frantic rush in and rush out through self-checkouts and drive-thrus until you wonder where all the people have gone--you know, the ones who are supposed to help you find things, and talk to you while you shop, and wish you a nice day when you leave.

When I spent summers in Greece with my grandparents, I used to love going on morning errands with my grandmother. She would put on her straw hat and take her bag and we'd go out into the already-hot morning and walk--about ten minutes--from my grandparents' apartment to the rows of grocery markets and shops. My grandmother rarely went into the larger supermarket, where canned goods and paper products and fruits and meats were piled high all over the place. Instead, she did her shopping in and out of specialty shops, picked for special and particular reasons: her favorite butcher shop for the meat and the conversation; the produce stand run by the harsh-voiced lady with kind, crinkly eyes and with the best peaches and hard, sweet, grapes; the bakery because she knew the family who ran it. As I made the rounds with my grandmother, the bags would grow heavier, filled with delicious things mysteriously wrapped in brown parcel paper. The peaches weren't just peaches when we unwrapped them; we knew exactly where they came from and when we bit in, the juice running down our chins, we thought about the fruit stand lady with the crinkles around her eyes and about how those crinkles somehow always canceled out the harshness in her voice.

Back in the States, my mother used to shop that way, and also often lamented the impersonal atmosphere in the stores. She would drive miles out of the way to shop somewhere where she knew the store clerks, and they knew her, rather than give her business to a shop closer by, but one where she was just one of many customers, no different from the rest. I used to feel annoyed and impatient by all of this, of course (aren't we always annoyed and impatient about our parent's quirks, only discovering later, as grown-ups, that we are quirky ourselves and no doubt annoy our own children?), but maybe something about those shopping experiences steeped into me as a child. I avoid those mega-stores where you can find absolutely everything you need (and plenty you didn't need) in specific aisles; where the cashiers and clerks change daily and no one really knows who you are; where you become the anonymous shopper--or better yet, an every man/woman shopper, interchangeable for anyone, really.

I won't pretend I don't like Target (the money-sucker, as Scott calls it), because I do, but a trip there is something out of the ordinary for the kids. Usually, I drag them along to the small stores still; we do our grocery shopping at three different places, and bypass the closer mall's super shoe stores for the same small children's shoe shop 20 minutes from our house because, well, they know us there, and always exclaim over how the children's feet have grown.

I guess I'm both a city person at heart and a country one, too. I like the bustle and familiarity of the small stores and neighborhood shops--the kinds you find in packed cities, but I also love the open spaces and quiet and safety of our suburban life. I guess a part of me is nine years old still, holding my grandmother's hand while we cross the street, heading into the bakery where the counter is laden with trays and trays of cookies and rolls, and where the warmth of conversation rises into the air, mixing with the warm bread, spilling out into the street, following us home, our bags bursting with too many good things.