We have a guest visiting us from America (fine, it’s my mom) and each time I go to the store she keeps suggesting that I buy things like condiments, paper towels, toilet paper, and pasta, as if we’ve used everything or are running dangerously low. On my way out the door she says, ‘get some toilet paper.’ And I imagine the thin remains of a single roll hanging precariously in the bathroom. Only to come back and find four… five… six rolls! Running low? What’s going on here?
In the great expanse of Mid-America it is very, very rare to live within walking distance of… well anything, especially a grocery store. Grocery stores rest on seas of asphalt parking lots, so to live within ‘walking distance’ of a store would mean you live right near a parking lot. Or maybe you live in a van? And sure, as kids you can make the hike to the store because that’s the only way to get there, but as an adult with a family and work, walking to the store just isn’t really a thing.
So you drive, but you don’t drive every day, you drive once a week, maybe every two weeks or even three. You stock up, like you’re stocking up for the apocalypse, which is why my mom keeps telling me to buy stuff we already have enough of.
Now contrast this to Croatia. Every day my punica goes to the market or store. In fact, old women, passing by, hobbling to the store is part of the country’s daily rhythm, one of the necessary acts that let you know it’s morning in Croatia. It’s rare to find a neighborhood that doesn’t have a walkable store somewhere in its geography. And this daily routine, this way of life has altered my behavior immensely.
I love being able to go to the store, by foot in less than five minutes. I need something, we’re out of something, I just go outside, walk a bit through the neighborhood, cross the tiny, tiny parking lot, and voila, I can get it. And on my way back from the store I can even stope at the cafe, have a drink, then get my haircut, buy some bread at the bakery, and gamble at the sports betting place if I feel like it (I don’t, but I could. If I did). It’s just all right there!
Mid-America used to have neighborhood stores. I remember as a kid walking through the neighborhood, and passing a ‘house’ that looked strange sitting next to the other homes. And then my parents explained that it used to be a store. Weird, I thought, unable to even imagine a store that size or one that wasn’t stuck in a parking lot somewhere.
More than a store
The thing about the neighborhood store is not just that it sells stuff. It’s more than that. It’s about the people you encounter at the store. It’s about seeing the sellers there every day. It’s smiling when they compliment your much improved Croatian. It’s about a daily interaction with the people who live and work around you. It’s about community.
And it’s one of the things we miss in America. No matter how big the store, or the size of its parking lot, that’s something you just can’t buy. No, the big store, the vast parking lot, and the once a month encounters among the customers and the sellers doesn’t create community, it breeds anonymity.