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Grocery Store Urbanism

By Frank J. Gruber

As a city-lover to the bone I have often been frustrated with the difficulty of explaining to people annoyed with the downside of urban life -- in these parts that means traffic congestion -- what benefits they get from living in the city.

I don't mean the big social, cultural or economic benefits. Everyone can relate to a symphony orchestra or a major league baseball team or lots of jobs to choose from. I mean the day-to-day plusses that one can weigh against the day-to-day minuses of living in a more rather than less dense environment.

Recently though I have been thinking about something that might give an inkling, in understandable terms, why, all things being equal (i.e., if a city has a decent economy, is not beset by crime, etc.) property values in urban areas are generally higher than those in less dense suburbs.

I am calling this something "grocery store urbanism" because it has to do with how we shop for food. The idea came into focus for me recently when my wife and I had dinner at some friends' house here in Santa Monica.

They grilled salmon that they had purchased at Santa Monica Seafood. That was not unusual, of course, Santa Monica Seafood being one of our particular blessings.

The funny thing was, though, when I asked, it turned out that everything our friends served, from the olives and the avocadoes that we ate while our hosts cooked, to the Brussels sprouts and salad, to the ice cream for dessert, seemed to come from a different store.

I wasn't surprised. My wife and I had been talking about this, about how we had been strangely living like the proverbial French housewife, buying everything for dinner at a different store. We mostly use our car, of course, rather than a string bag to carry our purchases, but the list of stores is long. I suspect that the following list is familiar to many other Santa Monicans.

The Farmers Markets: Fruits & vegetables, particularly bags of citrus, stone fruits, salad, and whatever green vegetables are available, eggs and fish. Occasionally we buy meat, particularly bacon, ham hocks or pork chops.

Trader Joe's: Olive oil, nuts, cheese, baking chocolate, smoked salmon, meat (particularly lamb), canned beans, beer, wine, toiletries, and vitamins.

Bob's Market (17th and Ocean Park Boulevard): Meat (particularly pork and fresh sausage, but Bob's meat department is my favorite specialty butcher and can get anything); roast chicken to go; whatever we need at the moment.

Von's (Lincoln at Broadway) or Albertson's (Lincoln at Ocean Park Boulevard): These are our default supermarkets. We buy hard to find items there like unscented Dove soap plus whatever produce and staples we need at the moment.

Whole Foods (2201 Wilshire), Wild Oats (5th & Wilshire) and Co-opportunity (16th & Broadway): Organic chicken and meat, prepared foods, bread, fresh produce.

Costco: Big items -- paper towels, toilet paper, kitchen sponges, aluminum foil, toothbrushes and floss, etc.; great deals on canned crab meat, and large cuts of meat; olive oil; wine; and (not surprising given what else we buy) large containers of Tums. (Costco is my wife's thing; I am glad she's willing to deal with it, but in my opinion there is nothing there that makes up for having to drive that far down Lincoln Boulevard.)

Smart & Final (604 Lincoln in Venice): A lot of the same items that we get at Costco (but when even my wife doesn't feel like driving there); cleaning supplies; 40 pound bags of charcoal; paper goods for parties; and large jugs of cooking oil.

Bay Cities Imports: Cold cuts, cheese, pasta, large cans of salted anchovies.

Santa Monica Seafood: What do you expect?

Ukraina Deli (1207 Wilshire): Smoked fish, cold cuts.

Polish Sausage Factory a/k/a J & T European Market (1128 Wilshire): Sausage, cold cuts.

Wine Expo (2933 Santa Monica Boulevard): Wine (and acerbic commentary about wine).

Bread stores: Bread deserves its own category. We buy bread all over, including at Pain du Jour on Pico just east of Lincoln (authentic French baguettes and pastries baked on the premises) and at Le Pain Quotidien (organic breads; expensive, but it's right around the corner from my office). We also buy bread occasionally at Il Fornaio and we buy La Brea Breads at Bob's Market (including the half-frozen, bake your own loaves) and elsewhere. We buy bagels at New York Bagel at 23rd and Wilshire (but they are not as chewy as they used to be).

Last but not least, the little store at 4th and Hollister: Our neighborhood, walking-distance market; everything from milk to bananas to wine to ice cream.

There are other stores, too, but I know what you are thinking: Gruber has the same pathological relationship to food that the Palisades Beach Road property owners have to lawyers.

But a list like this is hardly unusual in Santa Monica. I have rarely been in any of these stores when they weren't crowded. Let's face it; the urbanites in Santa Monica obtain great pleasure from shopping, particularly for food. More Santa Monicans shop at Whole Foods than ever protested a development -- probably more than go to the beach. They worship at the church of Trader Joe's.

This kind of shopping runs entirely against what is supposed to be the trend, namely bigger and bigger versions of the supermarket, the latest scourge being Wal-Mart's super centers. Our list has more than 20 stores and farmers markets.

Grocery Store Urbanism represents the antithesis of the Wal-Mart ethos where big brother in Bentonville is purportedly out there saving the American consumer money by finding all the best deals and doling them out.

But we all know what that's done to quality. "One stop shopping" means that the shopper has to settle for whatever the market's buyer chooses to buy -- typically something inferior and of less value for the money.

The competing stores in an urban area instead create a grocery shopper's empowerment zone. We make our own decisions about value, and from a multitude of choices. We have those choices because they are so convenient to us. All the stores my wife and I shop at are within three miles of our house in Ocean Park.

Because we live in a relatively dense area we have these choices and we can use them. We're not spending time driving miles -- through traffic as bad as Santa Monica's -- from one shopping center to another.

So -- shop hard and eat well.

* * *

Thanks to Santa Monica City Council Member and student of popular culture Kevin McKeown for pointing out an error in last week's column. I attributed the quote "Cocaine is God's way of telling you you're making too much money" to Richard Pryor. Council Member McKeown said the quote belonged to Robin Williams. He seems to be right. I did a Google search and, although others have attributed the quote to the late Mr. Pryor, by more than ten to one the hits favor Mr. Williams.

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