The gentle strains of a well produced folk band waft overhead. A man who looks to be in his fifties putters about behind the counter in an old-timey apron. He greets me with more ebullience than I tend to expect from a cashier. Certainly more than I’d have.
“Let me know if you need help finding anything!”
He seems genuinely stoked that I may, in fact, ask for help. I don’t. This isn’t a comprehensive grocery shopping trip, nor is it a surgical strike; I have a couple of items I want to pick up, and then maybe a couple more. Very much a “wander around the convenience store” sort of trip. Still, the offer is nice. I appreciate it.
Everything here is nice. “Here” is Cone and Steiner General in Pioneer Square. It’s down near the Stadiums, next to an upscale “reimagined” sports bar and across from the recently re-opened 13 Coins. The displays of (mostly local, organic) potato chips are arranged in pleasing semi-circles. The Tylenol is mounted on the sort of display you usually see holding greeting cards. The counter runs through the middle of the store, to browse effectively you have to circle the clerk, sometimes multiple times.
There is a man at the corner drinking a draft IPA. Oh yes, you can also order pints of beer and drink it there. There’s also espresso and ice cream.
LIKE THE PEOPLE IT CATERS TO, MORE CUTE THAN FUNCTIONAL
Upon finding that they don’t have the hand soap I wanted (any gd hand soap) but plenty of body wash (you can wash your body but not your hands!) I settled on my purchases. The random assortment:
4 pack of toilet paper from Nature’s Way.
1 roll of paper towels from Nature’s Way.
One 10 pack of Mission Style Tortillas (to make quesadillas!)
One tube of Tom’s of Maine (natch) toothpaste
One can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup (I have a cold.)
Total: 27.77. 28.77 after tip, which they have a tip jar there so that you can properly appreciate the helpfulness of your cashier. Which, fair I guess. I’m not NOT gonna tip.
I also had planned on buying a loaf of bread, but all that was available was marked sell by 5/10, and would have put my trip up near $40. If I’d purchased cheese (to make quesadillas!) I’d be pushing $50. Granted the bread is from Macrina, a fine local bakery, but twice as expensive is still twice as expensive.
Walking home with two miniature paper bags with handles that look like they were woven out of goat hair, I was intensely frustrated with myself. One, I was frustrated that I didn’t have hand soap, which was one of the things I wanted most out of the trip. Life is hard, I know.
Two, I was frustrated that the reason I went to Cone and Steiner instead of Bartell Drugs or 7/11 was that I didn’t want to feel poor.
LETS BACK UP A BIT
Living in Pioneer Square or the ID presents a quandary when it comes to grocery options. It’s far from a food desert, but there’s a reason I do most of my large grocery runs downtown at Kress IGA. You can shop at Uwajimaya, which is awesome, but very expensive, because it can be. It’s also *just enough* of a walk for me that loading up on groceries can be a challenge if I’m on foot.
You can go to Union Market on Jackson, where I once bought expired milk from a tepid refrigerator next to an opened carton of eggs– now they’re a toilet paper only stop for me. You can go to Saveway, affectionately nicknamed “Murder Mart” by a lot of the locals, probably unfairly. You can go to the 7/11 on first, filled nightly at 1:50 am by thirsty folks buying sixpacks for home afterparties.
THE PERPETUAL FOOD JIGSAW OF MULTIPLE CORNER STORES
With many of the corner stores in the area, consistency is an issue; Saveway actually has a decent selection of actual food (the ratio of potato chips and candy bars to items like “bread” or “fruit” is not as dire as at Union or 7/11) but it varies in quality and quantity depending on visit. Union is consistently not a place to by non-perishables, but most people use it to get beer or use the Western Union anyway. Bartells is primarily a drug store, and as such, its relationship to providing food is downright bizarre. The store on my corner didn’t sell bread for the first month in business. Now it sells an off brand of Wonderbread.
Living in a studio apartment at the edge of Pioneer Square, I find myself surrounded largely by two very disparate groups as I weave through the neighborhood. Wealthy businessmen and tech transplants, and the unhoused and desperate. In the week after rent and bills go out and before the next paycheck, dealing with a sunburn/allergic outbreak that had strangers yelling at me (WHYYOURFACESORED), it’s easy to feel acutely which side of that equation I fall closer to.
When Cone and Steiner opened, I was hoping a solid, middle of the road store for staples and snacks was finally here, that between that and aforementioned options, I could cut the trips to Kress out of my routine. I should have known from the signage that what I’d get was closer to a Portlandia skit. If a spot has “General Store” or “Mercantile” in its title and it opened within the last century, it’s a pose for rich people, appealing to a nostalgic simplicity narrative. Granted, if you are rich, you can do a lot worse than going there; it’s locally owned and run and all that good stuff.
But I didn’t go because I could afford it; I went because I couldn’t, was feeling that hard, and wanted to pretend. To not be reminded, one more time in my day. The net effects of my decision are negligible– I’ll skip pho in favor of leftovers and I’m good– but I hate that I’m susceptible to that. That the mix of shame and ego associated with grocery shopping at corner stores has taken hold. That I couldn’t look the friendly clerk in the eye and say “hey, can I put a few things back?” without giving away that I didn’t belong.
Because I totally could have done that at 7/11. And seriously, give those guys a tip jar– they’ve seen some shit.
Also published on Medium.