Welcome to Actually, a safe space for us to share our deeply held but unpopular opinions about food and drinks.
Supermarkets have obvious advantages as far as prices and options go, but the endless aisles and fluorescent lights and 11 types of mayo can induce an existential crisis. That's why you'll sometimes see abandoned shopping carts—they’re from those who became overwhelmed, left, and probably walked straight into the woods or the ocean.
It's infinitely more peaceful to shop at those tiny, independent grocery stores, with their dumbly cute hand-written signs and cramped aisles and just two types of mayonnaise.
We spend so much time at grocery stores that they occasionally feel like really boring clubhouses. Stats show that people are heading to the grocery store about 1.6 times a week and spending an average of 40 minutes there each visit. You're probably reading this in the chip aisle right now.
It's no surprise that people spend so much time there, since supermarkets feel like poorly designed corn mazes with shelves. We wonder around them aimlessly, staring at 50 types of crackers and 100 types of cereal that gradually blend together into a blur of color, no longer able to remember what we came for nor the life we had before entering. Not even the bird flying in the rafters makes us feel better, because we know it's stuck inside, too. “Cleanup in aisle nine.”
Standing among 50,000 items with a basket that can only hold a few of them is not conducive toward actually finding something to eat.
These are the times you remember that impossibly precious market in your neighborhood. It's a linoleum (or hardwood, or Spanish tile) Shangri La, a little bigger than a convenience store, with a highly visible exit, a couple of checkout staff, no more than four or five aisles, and not a single bird inside. The lighting is practically chiaroscuro in comparison to the blisteringly bright supermarkets, and the customers are peaceful yet purpose-driven, as if they have somewhere to be.
A recent Caltech study showed that having too much choice can impair the decision-making process, especially when you're an indecisive idiot like I am. Standing among 50,000 items with a basket that can only hold a few of them is not conducive toward actually finding something to eat.
At the small markets, these decisions are already made for you. You'll have six types of crackers to choose from and you’ll deal with it. It's like a grocery store that has to ration because of a world war.
There's also no need to desperately gaze up at aisle signs to find your bearings; small markets often don't even need aisle signs, because you can usually just stand in the middle or glance down the aisles and see nearly every item without squinting. But even if, somehow, you can't find something, all you need to do is say out loud to no one in particular: “Where's the creamed corn?” And a voice will answer: “To your left.”
That's what the independent stores seem to stock way more of: humanity. Supermarkets flatten any sense of community and character with overbearing consumer choice, to the point that the only time you feel another connection to a human being is when you see that creepy hand restocking the cottage cheese from the other side of the refrigerated dairy section. (I dare you to grab it.)
You know that hopeful, determined feeling you have when entering a grocery store? It actually stays with you at the small market, instead of getting broken at the big one. I'm done shopping in the time it takes to heat a burrito, and serenely arrive at the checkout without the urge to impale myself on the conveyor belt divider.
Of course, something strikes you when you leave: Did I just spend $3.99 for a can of beans? Did that orange juice cost $6? The cost difference at these stores can be somewhat shocking, and while I certainly can't afford to patronize them regularly, I look at the exorbitant prices as my penance for the inability to make a decision in bigger ones. It's expensive, but I save time and stress not miserably sauntering around like Philip Seymour Hoffman at the end of Synecdoche, New York.
Since you can't always shop at the cute markets and eventually have to obsequiously make your back to the ones in aircraft hangars, a few tactics can shorten the visit.
Only go grocery shopping ten minutes before they close, because nothing focuses the mind like a frustrated checker yelling, “BRING your FUCKING items to the FRONT!” over the PA system. Follow people who look like they know what they're doing, and dart through the supermarket aisles in as few steps as possible, like Giannis Antetokounmpo to the hoop. And if you wrote out a grocery list, attach a little fuse and light it upon entering the store.
Believe me, if I had the change, I'd do all my shopping via vending machine. Little makes you feel the painful routine of life than orbiting the aisles of the same supermarket week after week.
But if you spend a few expensive minutes in those quaint little neighborhood grocery stores now and then, you'll save another 40 better spent doing something else, like endlessly scrolling Netflix trying to decide what to watch before giving up and throwing your computer against the wall.