Aliens and strangers … at Trader Joe’s

I’ve had mixed feelings about the opening of the first Trader Joe’s in Charlottesville. It’s hard to imagine what we’ve done to deserve it—we are, after all, a town of fewer than 40,000 people, though the county surrounding us is perhaps two and a half times that.

Of course, it’s a pretty affluent county that’s also home to a pretty fancy public university. But still, I associate chains like Trader Joe’s with places like Tyson’s Corners (in the D.C. ‘burbs) and Short Pump (outside of Richmond) … which seems indicative of a disquieting shift in the country-in-the-city quality of life we’ve enjoyed here for so long.

There was a process, perhaps a decade in the making, that turned a patch of woods on U.S. 29 into a Trader Joe’s and an IMAX theater, with a Williams Sonoma and a Pottery Barn to come. And that process should give us all pause. We’re a way station in the D.C.-to-Greensboro megatropolis, on our way to being a destination. What might being a destination mean?

First impressions…


The first I’ve seen since I smuggled a package into the country from Tuscany in ’06. Fresh turkeys of some sort, antibiotics free, for $2.99 a pound.

I don’t even look at the produce. I had spent Saturday visiting Whisper Hill Farm with my students, so recalling Holly and James Hammond’s beautiful bottomland on the Rapidan River, recalling the endless fields of dozens of varieties of kale, mustard greens, bok and pak choys, chards, cabbage, and more—well, thinking of all that makes these overplump, overbright vegetables in plastic look … plastic.

I buy nuts and turkey—and wine, a sweet deal at half a case for 32 bucks.

Second impressions…

Need stuff for fellowship hour at church, so I score a few goodies I’d spotted and passed up on my first visit. Fancy cookies, chevre, carrots for the sweet potato and apple soup—mini carrots because that’s all that’s left. Now I’m in the parking lot—handing off my empty cart to a couple just arriving.

“What do they have in there?” the old gentleman says, looking uneasy. “I don’t know what all the fuss is about.” Suddenly, I’m feeling the unease, at the bright lights illuminating this cavernous theater of empty retail space. When all the lights come on, I suddenly realize, when all the shops are filled and bursting with shoppers from five counties, it’s going to transform my “little” town.

And it’s suddenly very important to me that this old guy feel comfortable inside that store.

“They have excellent wine,” I say, “Prices very low. I got six bottles for 32 dollars.” He seems to brighten a up a bit, “Oh, she’ll like that,” he says, gesturing at his companion. She grins over at me, and I see she’s his daughter. “I sure will. Now come on, dad,” she says, charging ahead.

Third impressions…

Marc and I stop by the day before Thanksgiving. We’re coming back from a job in Free Union, grubby kneed and weary. I’m wearing my cowboy hat for warmth, and it’s been cracking Marc up all afternoon. “Hey, cowgirl!” he keeps saying.

We need new bed linens, pretty desperately, and Marc has been dangling this treat in front of me, but I have absolutely vetoed going to Target. “We look like farmers!”

There’s no getting around the need for wine and coffee, though. So here we are, me for the third time. “It is probably a third of the size that I thought it would be,” Marc says, squinting about. I try to lead him on a tour of the produce, but he balks and beelines it to the coffee section. We settle on a New Mexican brand roasted with pine nuts. (Not the chicory we’ve been pining for, but at least grown in the U.S. of A.).

I’ve been struggling to define Trader Joe’s as we’ve walked. “It’s not about toilet paper and dishwasher pellets. They figure you can go to Kroger for that. It’s about what’s exclusive—from around the world. You know?” He nods, but is looking jumpy.  The close quarters are not to his taste.

The wine section, when we reach it, is jammed with carts and customers. We’re talking a space about as big as my living room and dining room combined, and there are a dozen people–with carts–jammed along a single aisle. Way too many folks for Marc, who leaps straight up in the air and bolts like a startled buck when he’s rammed next to the Spanish reds. I just shrug and follow him. “Too many people,” I say to a confused-looking professor in canvas and corduroy.

At last, the checkout line. And there’s one more hurdle to clear—a thirtyish black couple I’ve been glimpsing around the store. Theirs is the shortest line, so I mosey up reluctantly behind them, feeling every clod of clay ground into the knees of my chinos. Now that I can get a good look at them, I see they are indeed “cleaner than the Board of Health.” They are absolutely exquisite in shades of charcoal, black, and gray. Mohair sweater, crisp wool trousers and skirt—is that wrap cashmere? And here I am in grubby chinos, pine straw stuck in my hair. I can’t stop staring.

Days after the fact, I can speculate that the ‘90s party girl I was long ago may have been rearing her head beneath the cowboy hat. At the time, all I can say for sure is that I developed a positive fascination with the woman’s handbag. It was suitcase-stiff black velvet, draped in gold-tone chains, with a pink mesh panel that only made sense … if it was also a pet carrier? Did I mention the thing was huge, too?

“Is that a dog in there?” my urgent whisper to Marc. “What? What’re you talking about?” he said, looking around.

“That woman’s bag. Is there an animal in there?” I can only make out folds of pink satiny cloth. Is the dog wearing … panties?

“What bag?” He’s looking into our cart—no idea what I’m talking about.

“Right there!” I have to physically restrain myself from pointing, looking urgently from him back at her—only to discover that … she’s looking at me. One exquisitely manicured hand is shielding her mouth—but there’s no question about it. She’s talking to her husband, and  looking at me.

Did we both look away? I don’t recall now. I do remember the oddly intimate touch of her eyes. I do remember saying, “That couple is talking about us.”

I didn’t need to tell him which couple.

We talked about them, though, on the way home. How cute they were, with their immaculate clothes and their beautifully styled hair. (I’m still not sure about that handbag).

“You know,” I said much later. “They were as fascinated to see us in the Trader Joe’s as they would have been to see a … a giraffe.”

Baby looked down at me and his eyes laughed. “I know.”

That should be enough. Enough, don’t you think? But no, there’s a fourth impression…

Trader Joe’s … I realize now that Trader Joe’s is the empire—the company isn’t even trying to hide it; someone even picked a name sure to evoke it. Trader Joe’s is the essence what empire has always been. Trade—in nuts and wine and rare Italian meats, in chocolate pudding made in Belgium and cheeses from remote cantons in Switzerland. All at Wal-Mart prices. Which means somebody, somewhere is getting squeezed… probably more than squeezed.

And there we were, two couples symbolically at opposite ends of this endless supply chain—two growers, two consumers

… Less than a pimple on the rump of this global behemoth, each contributing our mite to keeping it afloat…

… Staring at each other as at aliens and strangers, yet unable to look away.