Friday, February 19, 2010

Following is information about an event coming up in Saxy. I plan to attend; these folks have meaningful information to share. --Cameron

Join us in Saxapahaw for a free class in natural healing with local experts.

"Natural Alternatives for Stress Management"
presented by the Saxapahaw Community Health Forum.

Saturday March 6th from 1-3pm at The Bridge at RiverMill.
919.260.1430 for more info.

On March 6th, we will gather together and:
*sample locally crafted herbal remedies,
*explore seated mind-body awareness exercises,
*learn about the anatomy and physiology of the human nervous system and
*have our panel experts answer your questions!

About the Saxapahaw Community Health Forum:
We call ourselves the Saxapahaw Community Health Forum. Our goal is to create a community forum for learning about safe, effective, natural and affordable ways to heal ourselves.

Our community is growing, and we are rich in local expertise in how to use herbs, nutrition, bodywork and exercise. When it comes to building sustainable community, health is wealth!

We'd like this event to be the first in a series where we open up a panel type discussion free to the community - to help build local awareness in natural and affordable health care alternatives for the major health obstacles many of us face in our modern world.

With so much of our national focus on reducing health care costs and extending coverage to all Americans, there hasn't been much serious dialogue about prevention. Nutrition, exercise and a healthy lifestyle are key for longevity. So we'd like to get helpful information of this kind out to local folks.

Forum Presenters:
Judith Brooks, Licensed Acupuncturist and Chinese Herbalist.
Lea Clayton, LMBT #5134 Massage, Polarity Therapy, Yoga and Herbalism.
Suki Roth, Herbalist, Teacher, Mentor and Alternative Health Care Practitioner.
Ron Vitel, Nutritionist and Consultant.

Check out our flier below for more information about the event.

Call Judith Brooks for more information: 919.260 1430. For directions to The Bridge at RiverMill in Saxapahaw go to

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Penny Jar Economics

The penny jar as an economic phenomenon has gained a presence (at least since I began taking notice) in a great number of shops and markets, usually where the employees have some control over their check-out counters. The vessel itself varies depending on the character of the space. The old Saxapahaw General Store used the cut off bottom of a Coke cup; now we have graduated to a small porcelain plate, though we shan't get above ourselves too much. Some clever folks, to explain the procedure, attach to their jars the phrase, "Have a penny, leave a penny, need a penny, take a penny." Implicit in these rules is a sense of fairness--even exchange based on need and avoiding overuse--but a discerning sort might sense a hint of socialism underlying in the message. Because it reveals underlying economic philosophy, and to an extent overall worldview, the penny jar--pedestrian by appearance and function--can take on real anthropological import.

To an extent, why the jar is introduced to the counter in the first place, and how it gets used thereafter, speaks to the culture the employees create in their spaces. At its best, the penny vessel improves customer service. With all due respect to the humble penny, its size to worth ratio is too large, and it can't be cycled into vending machines or parking meters. Customers usually feel well-considered when cashiers supplement their payments with the odd change due and return all silver coins in a tidy palmful. Of course, in a more self-serving organization, employees use the penny jar to keep from having to replace the change in their cash boxes. And where folks are passive, they ignore the jar altogether, letting customers fend for themselves to find the advantage of using the jar.

I realize that making such judgments about the cashier's role in the penny jar itself reveals a bit of a bias, and a few customers' reactions let me know of this as a subjective point of view. When I use pennies to alter a customer's transaction, sometimes he will hastily dig into his pockets in search of replacements for the coins I have used on his behalf; he would not have employed the jar on his own, even if it meant breaking a twenty into a hundred tiny splinters or going to his car for more change. This customer is the isolationist. He prefers not to take anything from a neighbor that will place him in the neighbor's debt. He is neither borrower nor lender; he takes responsibility for himself, and he expects others to do the same. When the isolationist's change is less than a nickel, he always waits for it and takes it with him, exercising his liberty to opt out of our system.

Nearly opposite the isolationist is the leaner, who never lends, always borrows, and who in extreme cases may even take pennies unrelated to his purchase. The leaner creates extreme agitation in any cashier with a heightened sense for justice. Arwen, for example, the best steward of the penny jar and also, to our benefit, the person most likely to comment on the fairness or injustice of any situation (even if it comes at a personal cost to her), cannot abide abuse of the penny jar and polices it by removing the vessel from the view of any customer who has demonstrated a tendency toward this behavior. She's served as a sort of conscience for our system, safeguarding its use for the folks who operate honestly.

Somewhere between leaning and isolating fall the folks who participate in giving and taking from the jar. Some tortured souls suffer from guilty consciences, taking pennies only while promising to return them later, or while reminding the cashier of the many instances of generous donation to the kitty. Others complicate matters with a distaste for all non-paper currency, tossing willy-nilly all change into the vessel. The most balanced of citizens can take and give freely, without concern for potential judgment from behind the counter. Not surprisingly, no matter the twinges of conscience, the give-and-takers usually base their final decisions on that hallmark of American culture--pragmatism.

Perhaps you've thought of this, but the penny jar depends entirely on folks using cash for their transactions, and its irrelevance for the credit card user reveals a bit of ill health into which we have fallen as a card-wielding culture. I am chief among sinners here, but I have come to think that when we use credit or debit, we short circuit the effects of currency (think electricity here) by sending our funds through a third party whose imbalanced scales lift money out of the organization with whom we are actually interacting. It's not a clean relationship, and I have resolved in 2010 to begin to heal my own broken transactions by joining my fellow participants in the penny jar model of economic exchange.

Friday, January 8, 2010


Jeff will object to my regionalist comment here, but he is from Michigan, a land that is bereft of the Southern culinary ritual of eating black-eyed peas and collard greens on New Year's Day in our attempt to draw dollars-and-coins-style increase for the coming year. Because of this cultural gap, he forgets to order peas in time for the holiday and has tried to pass off something similar as the real thing. Last year, he actually made hoppin' john with Great Northern beans to the dismay of many of our customers, a faux pas he sought to remedy in 2010 with a last-minute run to the co-op in Pittsboro to pick up a few collards and locally grown peas for a little side dish to appease me and the other folks who live too far from home to get grandma's variety.

While he was slow to come to the notion of peas and greens as ritual, Jeff has turned out to be gifted at cooking these delicacies, and he has received the stamp of approval from several respectable Southern cooks on his recipes for them. It's not surprising--though I do love my dear Memaw, I grew up eating collards that had been boiled to mush, punctuated occasionally by a rubbery bit of ham hock. Jeff has found a remedy for this unfortunate fate that often befalls the hearty green, and he discovered a nice method for sauteing field peas that fits the black-eyed variety just right.

Perhaps it was the flavor--or maybe it was the desperation of Southerners looking for good luck for the new year--but we finally made Jeff a believer in this dish when we ran out of collards midday on New Year's Day. I was sent for more, though I wondered about the possibility of success this late in the holiday. I set out for Carrboro, hoping I'd find a supply of the stuff in one of the markets.

Halfway up the road, at Stuydivant's Auto on NC-54, I noticed a marquis that read "collards." I pulled onto the gravel drive, hoping to find someone to make good on that promise. Round back of the barns there to the side of the auto shop, just next to a couple of nice fields, I imposed upon three gentlemen chopping firewood to find out where the collards were.

"How many d'ya want?" one man asked, stepping away from his work to help me. I asked if we were talking about bunches or baskets, and he said, "No, plants." I turned around to see that behind me were growing several rows of giant collard plants, bursting forth from their mounds like green sunbursts. He quoted my price, and I asked for ten plants, please. He picked up a machete sitting on one of the rows and began harvesting my purchase. It was only after I had to fold down the seats in my station wagon that I realized how large the plants were; in the end I drove away barely able to see past the leaves, my car stuffed with the elephantine bouquets.

I arrived back at the store and paraded about with one of the plants, delighting in the others' amazement at the bounty with which I had returned. Dion, one of the store's cooks, immediately set to work breaking down the plants into manangeable bits for cooking, and then he braised the greens for serving that night at supper. We served enough that day and the following days that if greens really do turn to money, Saxapahaw's residents can expect a real boon in 2010.

From my New Year's Day adventure, I took two concepts I'll carry with me through this year. First, the ritual of food contributes much to the identity of a place in an ever-renewing way. The place carries the traditions, inviting us to join in whether we were born in one location or elsewhere. Second, prosperity visits a community when its members rely on their neighbors for their provisions. That those collards were alive in a field minutes from our store, and that they were sold to me by the hand that raised them, made me truly prosperous to receive them. This January, I am grateful for these rituals and for these neighbors.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

An Interview

Last week, Jeff and I were asked to participate in an interview, of sorts, for a convenience store (c-store, in the biz) trade magazine--CSP (Convenience Store/Petroleum) Independent. We were intrigued. I've no idea what will come of it, but I've just finished answering the questions for the fellow who wrote us, and I wanted to post them here in full. Interesting is that the person who inquired is from the Chicago area, and said he read of the store in the Chapel Hill/Durham Herald Sun article about us written in early spring of 2008. Ahh, the information age.

1. Please provide details/background on your business:
We are Saxapahaw General Store, located in the unincorporated former mill village of Saxapahaw in rural/agrarian Alamance County, NC, on the banks of the Haw River. Our building, which is surrounded on all sides by mill cottages, forms the tip of a 1930’s cotton mill that ended its operation in 1996 and is now in process of renovation. Over the next year, a pub, an arts center, and almost thirty condos will assume use of the now-vacant space in our building. At present, we serve a population of about 2500 residents in the three miles around us, including seventy-four apartments that sit just below us in another building of the original mill.

We took over the store’s operation a year and a half ago, and when we came to the business it was a typical convenience store with prepackaged foods, gas, cigarettes, snacks, Hunt Brothers Pizza, and hot dogs. The store had struggled through two owners and several years of losses. Lots of restaurants and boutique stores the country wide have begun to focus on their localities first when deciding what products to sell—choosing local farmers’ vegetables and meats over those shipped from far-flung places and huge industrial farms. We thought, why can’t a neighborhood store participate in that model? After all, c-stores usually draw their customers from a two-mile radius around the store—wouldn’t those folks most of all be interested in supporting their local community? We decided that, to our existing product mix of convenience foods, motor oil, etc., we’d serve food made with fresh, locally produced ingredients, good coffee, small vintage wines, and microbrew beers.

We immediately added to our cafĂ© a menu of sandwiches, salads, chili, beef stew, and in-house scratch-made biscuits, cookies, scones, muffins, and pies. Eventually, in order to market for ourselves instead of for a large pizza chain, we decided to make our own pizza—the crust and sauce from scratch. Over time, we added menu items for dinner, including beef short ribs with mashed potatoes and turnip greens, made from locally raised hormone-free beef and local vegetables.

2. Your (and Cameron's) professional backgrounds (as in-depth as you would like; can include any personal info you want to add), including official titles.
Jeff is a butcher, a cook, and an armchair philosopher (he was a philosophy major in college at University of Michigan-Flint, who’s long tested his ideas in his workplace and found retail and foodservice a sort of hot spot for interacting with folks in a vital way). Jeff has run a green grocery in Boston, butchered in the old world style for an old specialty shop in Durham, NC, and started/managed a specialty grocery in an upscale community outside of Chapel Hill. He was building a house from scratch and helping found a cooperative grocery store in his town when he met me (Cameron); we share a mission now of working with food as a vehicle for building community in a time when people have become alienated from the sources of their food. At the store now, Jeff supervises the food operation. He’s the food professional among us, and he’s receiving really nice accolades from the community for his work (I can say this, as I’m not involved in the savory food except to serve and to eat it).

I (Cameron) am a UNC-Chapel Hill grad and former school teacher who wanted to work with people in a new way—helping connect people with their food supply, serving folks surprisingly good food, surprisingly well. I worked at a food cooperative before coming to this project, where I baked first and then became the marketing director. Cooperatives can be dogmatic in their business models, and a little exclusive. I wanted a broader experience, so the gas station was really appealing. I started my time at the general store doing mostly baking and some cashiering. Now I’m a sort of general manager, though the store is so small (we have 12-15 employees usually) it’s almost too big a title. I do dishes, serve food, bake on occasion, schedule small caterings (which we do on occasion for the intrepid event holder who’s willing to source such goods from an inauspicious-sounding provider), serve customers, and work with our staff. We have staff who are full of potential and have really grown over the last year and a half. We have been lucky to begin to draw folks to the store who are interested in what we’re doing and are willing to grow with us.

3. When was the gas station/c-store first opened, and when and why did you buy it?
The store opened around 2000, a few years after the cotton mill stopped its operation. The family who’d owned the mill wanted to reuse the building productively in the community. We got involved when one of the younger members of the family was looking for ways to offer more to his community—in the way of real food and a real general store atmosphere. It’s a sort of traditional country store, modernized a little so as to offer choices for Saxapahaw’s broad range of residents. We were intrigued by the community and the opportunities the store presented. Since it was failing as it was, we knew we had a chance to do something truly different. Out of the ashes of the old model, we have raised something fresh—and so far, it’s resonating with folks.

4. When and why did you add the foodservice? (Especially in the format that you offer it.) Also what is the menu? Much of this is discussed above—the menu ranges from barbecue sandwiches, hamburgers and hot dogs (one local, one national all-beef brand) to specialty Panini grilled sandwiches to pizza to evening dinner specials (even including a pan-seared sea scallops dish with asparagus and risotto). We serve what Jeff likes to call soul food from around the world—dishes influenced by lots of culinary traditions, usually with a little of the American South to Midwest in there somewhere, all approachable and with emphasis on flavor, not culinary tricks. We are a gas station, after all. But for us, the food comes first.

5. What are the joys of operating such a mix of businesses? (Provide any anecdotes.) The blog is really the place for this answer. We mostly sit back now and watch folks noticing the juxtapositions that exist in our store and in the village. Last weekend, a horse-drawn carriage full of folks came nose to handlebars with a group of cyclists from Chapel Hill. Some ladies inside chuckled as they watched the groups of very different people noticing each other in such close proximity. Since we’re so close to larger cities (and we’re on the way to the dump) but also in a very rural corner of the state, we get a really interesting and sometimes hilarious mix of folks who end up interacting in refreshing and surprising ways.
The product mix in the store reflects that. We have beanie weenies next to organic grains, and our wine section is also home to our fishing worms. People love finding these surprises when they visit, and everyone is fairly comfortable here because nothing feels exclusive. We also find that no one is really one-sided in their purchasing—the organic produce buyers often like Coke, too—so we have a great opportunity to break down barriers.

6. What are the challenges? (Provide any anecdotes.) Well, folks think/thought we were crazy, and we probably are. We’ve fought with Bud and Miller to reorganize and rebrand in the way we want to, rather than just taking the products they push on us. We’ve asked our customers what they want and carried those products, deciding not to offer every new gimmick on the market unless someone wanted to buy that item. That’s hard, because you have to talk to your customers a lot and be willing to make mistakes. But we’re getting there. The food has been a challenge, but a nice one—we have really increased our prepared foods sales since we began (from $200 daily in food sales to somewhere around $1000 on average—with upwards of $3000 on days when we have farmers’ markets in the village that bring 2000 extra people to town). We had to invest in some food loss at the start to get things rolling until the customers came along with our plan. But now we’re bringing costs in line with sales and seeing a sustainable flow. We’re busy now even on rainy days, which used to be a killer for sales in the store. People come in to use the internet and have lunch, drink coffee, and take home food for supper. It brings a great feeling.

7. Plans for expansion, additional stores? We are working to finish plans for a pub/restaurant in the same mill building, at the other end of the space. The pub will feature NC brewed beers and a few classics, along with the same very comfortable style of food we have in the store. We also have this dream that someday roadside markets and interstate c-stores will make a move to brand themselves instead of allowing the big corporations to brand them—and that they’ll feature their neighbors’ produce and value-added foods. That will come from the people in individual communities, though, as they grow tired of seeing their margins eroded by corporations squeezing them for higher profits while they struggle to get along on the slim margins they currently earn

8. Any comments about the c-store/gas station industry in general that you'd care to make.
That’s a can of worms you may wish you hadn’t opened. I’ll keep it short.
We are actually getting ready to de-brand our fuel in favor of our own brand. The gas is the same. The supplier is the same. The price is lower. Our people don’t use fuel credit cards much anyway because we’re not on the interstate (if we were, we couldn’t do this); we don’t like the insidious and parasitical relationship petrol corporations create with c-stores. They promise higher sales and offer breaks on new computers, etc. but they make their bucks back and so much more from folks with these tactics while stores don’t make enough on fuel to run the lights for their canopies.
C-stores provide an important service to their community, and more of them should assert their right to be their own stores, instead of paying for the dubious privilege of advertising for a multi-national corporation that cares not a whit for them or for their business. The same goes for a lot of other companies, but that’s another conversation. There’s a better way for us as independent retailers to interact with these entities that lets our businesses thrive while purchasing products that customers want from large companies. We should not be forced to barely make it while corporations rake in record profits.
But I’m not sure if you can print that and keep your advertisers.

9. What is the origin and official pronunciation of "saxapahaw"?! The village is named for the Sissipahaw tribe of native people, and it is pronounced sax’-uh-puh-haw (or sax-p’haw, as the locals have shortened it for speed). The village has a very interesting feel, and as I have written in our blog, it’s been influenced by the Quaker tradition that was strong here and has stamped the land with a very independent, libertarian, yet strangely open character.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

and the village was quiet

Saxapahaw has developed a certain kind of double life since the summer farmers' market began here five years ago. In the summer, it becomes the quirky destination for folks from the hinterlands, who descend upon the village once per week from the distant burgs of Chapel Hill and Burlington to enjoy local music and local food before returning home and spelling the name of the town to their friends who've never heard of it before.

Somehow the Saturday bustle carries forth all week energetically, making Summer in Saxapahaw an odd kind of frenzy very unusual for a place of its rurality (if you will).

But then August ends, and except for Octoberfest, Saxapahaw becomes still again. It's now--the quiet of Autumn--when I, like a holiday host whose guests have gone home, breathe a sigh of relief and settle in with my neighbors for the winter. This is the time when I get to know the character of this place.

Before I launch into discussion about the community of Saxapahaw, I have to issue the caveat that I am not, in any sense, a legitimate local. That's not to say I wouldn't like to be, but I don't qualify. Jeff and I, the shopkeepers here at Saxapahaw General Store, came to participate in the community here last June, but we still live in Chatham County, by virtue of the housing collapse. We're out-of-staters originally. We still put beans in our chili dogs.

But we have come to care for this place and for the people we've met here--be they bonafide locals or fellow interlopers. And while it may sound mystical, my experience has borne it out that folks are drawn to geographical places for specific reasons--as though the spirit of a place speaks, and its people respond.

When I spend time at the store and when I venture out to explore the village, I'm often struck by the diversity of backgrounds, occupations, places of origin, and cultural contexts in the people I meet in and around Saxapahaw. And it's true that only a fairly blended place could produce such a schizophrenic business as a gas station that serves sea scallops and sells local produce. As I have come to know Saxapahaw, I have come to understand that the unmistakable spirit of a place so diverse (and, at times, at odds) is revealed in what is common among them.

It is now, in the calm of Autumn, when I find myself asking, what is the connective thread here? Why have we come together--local or not--in this place that has no gated communities, no foreboding neighborhood entries, no walled estates? In a place that sits on the way to other towns, and as a convergence of roads, what, for that matter, makes us a distinct community?

To be sure, geographical place is marked by those people who inhabit it over time. The people may move on or die off, but I've noticed that the space holds their essence. Saxapahaw bears that out for me. I don't know anything about the Sissipahaw tribe, though I'm certain that research would prove fruitful here. I do know enough about the Quakers to understand that their peaceful yet fiercely independent spirit has marked this place.

That independent streak--to judge even from the store's staff--runs deep here in this fiercely Libertarian corner of the North Carolina Piedmont. Here, as much as any place I've lived or traveled, folks defend their right to be true to themselves. In many cases, folks have come here to be left to live their lives as they wish, outside the reach of suburban convention. There is little nod to conformity--no interest in keeping up with the Joneses--and people have consistently surprised me with their individual complexity. Stereotypes are shattered in this place where appearances are tossed aside in favor of direct human contact. I am both delighted and humbled by the number of times my default assumptions about a person have been dead wrong.

Quaker society has become synonymous with peaceable existence, and with its Quaker ancestry, it's a trait that also whispers its presence in Saxapahaw. People have significant differences of opinion about all sorts of things, and their independence makes them unafraid to share those. But Saxapahaw is not a violent place. I'm sure some of this is our American pragmatism at work; as a mill town, folks have grown used to coexisting peaceably here, of necessity. As Jerry, town philosopher disguised as a cynic, put it once, "We're your neighbors. Like it or not, you have to put up with us."

So here we are. Quietly, a couple of thousand people live in their spaces, very near one another, interacting sometimes at the dump or at the General Store, and all at least quietly tolerant of one another. In a way, this is the American spirit in its raw form--people of all stripes pursuing independent lives in parallel structure, each to his own, and on our best days willing to have our assumptions reformed by those around us.

In the stillness of Autumn, when the crowds of summer have gone home, I have learned it's that spirit that has drawn us here to Saxapahaw--and no matter what we appear to be, our journeys have converged meaningfully at this unlikely crossroads.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Case of the Leaky Cooler

In the United States, it seems our democracy, in tandem with our free market capitalism, has come to mean that we are endowed by our Creator with the inalienable right to choose sides. And there are usually two. And most (if not all) are actually corporations. There’s Tar Heel or Blue Devil. GM or Ford. PC or Mac. Visa or Mastercard. Pepsi or Coke. Army or Navy. Democrat or Republican.
This tendency to choose one of a limited number of sides has become deeply ingrained in the American identity. Just think of the sports rivalries we have cared so much about—for the capacity we’ve gained to feel like slugging a complete stranger who’s wearing the wrong color shirt at a sporting event (especially when there’s either Budweiser or Miller available at that event)! It’s almost as though we have a right to be angry at any poor sod who chose wrongly, given a 50/50 split. On the other hand, I’ve actually hugged a complete stranger at the conclusion of a UNC basketball game out of my joy at “our” victory.
Corporations have benefited greatly from our willingness to align ourselves with a team by managing to convince us to identify with one company or another—for superior flavor, a smoother ride, better service, or just a cooler product. Those identifications circumvent our logic, and sometimes even our better judgment. When two well-established companies pit themselves against one another successfully, their customer bases will notch up their loyalty—as though to support their brand against the other guy.
Today I experienced a poignant reminder of this tendency of ours toward a team-like allegiance to a corporate brand when the Coke repair guy visited me. I was baking a cake in our kitchen at Saxapahaw General Store (for a woman who actually preferred us to either Food Lion or Harris Teeter), when a man in a candy-striped shirt peered over the ice cream counter at me. “Are you in charge?” he asked.
“No,” I replied, wishing to avoid what I thought might be a sales pitch. He moved back a little, and I noticed his uniform was from Coke. He pressed on as though he hadn’t heard my response, and said, “You have a leaky Coke cooler.” I paused, and remembered at that moment having noticed water emerging from the soda cooler area of our store earlier that morning. But I hadn’t reported it for service, and I’d never seen this fellow before.
“How’d you know that?” I inquired. He informed me with no small measure of pride that he’d been told of our malfunctioning cooler by his colleague, our sales representative—the other Coke guy—and he’d headed right over to fix it.
Interested in this sudden surge of good service after months of having orders confused, products shoved at me, and signs placed in our store without permission, I directed the guy to the back of the store, where the Coke cooler stands—right next to the Pepsi cooler, in constant, silent rivalry.
Not terribly interested in what the Coke guy found to be wrong with his cooler, I returned to my cake, only to be interrupted again a few minutes later when he practically bounded to the front of the store and triumphantly proclaimed, “Ma’am, there’s nothing wrong with the Coke cooler. It’s the PEPSI cooler that’s leaky!”
He insisted on showing me his evidence—he’d removed the covers from both the compressors to point to the full tray of water in the Pepsi cooler and the bone-dry underside of his Coke appliance. He said, “You might want to get one of your people to empty that.” And he left.
I found this opposition—even between soda coolers—hilarious, particularly in the moment when the Coke guy (he never told me his name, nor asked me mine) seemed vindicated to learn that his appliance was not faulty—it was that other ass-hole’s that sucked.
But I have to admit that, upon further reflection, it’s troubling. That fellow cared not whether our store functioned well, or whether our Pepsi cooler ever worked again. Why would he? As a mercenary of Coke, it was his job to protect their asset and to ensure their brand wouldn’t be tarnished. The better for him, in fact, if the other guy’s cooler didn’t work. And while he didn’t know it, the fact wasn’t lost on me that we recently switched our soda fountain service from Coke to Pepsi because the service had been so bad our customers were becoming upset with us for out-of-stock beverage options (after all, when you prefer lemon lime soda, cola just won’t do). It seemed like some sort of corporate-karmic redemption that Coke’s cooler should be superior this time.
I’ve learned from my experience with the Coke guy, and the Pepsi guy, and the Bud and Miller guys, that this team-ish brand loyalty has led us all charging down a path to mediocrity. The advertising industry—the pied piper of the retail world—has tooted its flute at us, and we’ve been lured by our insatiable desire for preference. We have snuggled in with our fave teams, and the brands we love, and we’ve lined up in opposition to those products we hate and the players who suck and we have neglected to care whether we were actually in relationship with the people who actually make what we buy. And while we’ve been otherwise engaged, the quality of what we’re buying continues to decline—be it soft drinks, or sports, or health care, or politics.
If we keep at it, that privilege we so relish in this country—the prerogative for preference—won’t so much matter. The real choices have been disappearing under the illusion of the marketplace, and they’ve been replaced by a bunch of leaky coolers.


Sunday, May 31, 2009


Because we have already asked much of the space in our little store, the products on the shelves have gotten pretty comfortable having unlikely neighbors. They protested for a while, but then I think they realized they had more in common than they originally thought, given the proper context. Take, for instance, our fishing worms, which are now nestled cozily next to the wine tools and the picnic baskets.

Worms and wine seem like an odd juxtaposition at first. But add to that mix a pole and a spot next to the river, and suddenly they're all part of a relaxing afternoon picnic.

Of course, it took a good while to coax those worms into feeling at home with their new lofty status, as they had previously lived atop the trash can. The change took some getting used to, to be sure.

This week, our kitchen adjusted to change as we made rearrangements to accommodate our newest piece of equipment--a seven-feet-long freezer for dispensing hand-dipped ice cream.

A few weeks ago, Homeland Creamery (a local dairy in Julian, NC--just past Liberty) offered us the use of a giant ice cream freezer so we could bring hand-dipped cones to our community in time for summer. You might think this addition would be fairly simple, but in a gas station-grocery-wine store-cafe, it's a fair challenge to become an ice cream shop to boot. We got to work rearranging our ovens, moving our bakery, squishing our cigarettes even closer to the window, and amputating our counter to fit the eighteen-bin freezer into our already cramped quarters. Our friend Dobbs (the guy who put the five stars on our gas station window) built a cabinet, chopped off our counter, and excavated our safe to prepare room for the new freezer. Sherry, our baker, graciously found new places for muffins and scones when she came in to bake at 3 a.m. and noticed a gaping hole where the bakery counter had been only hours before.

Yesterday, the guys from Homeland hauled in the hulking freezer, and we delighted in getting it cool enough to host the big vats of fresh ice cream that were on their way. But some of the items in the kitchen were a bit ruffled by the move. The bread case lost its home and has been temporarily relegated to a second-class status behind the counter, taking the cookies with it. The to-go containers have been made refugees after the loss of their storage shelves during the counter removal. And the pizza boxes are currently teetering precariously atop the cooling rack, constantly risking calamity. That's to say nothing of the garbanzo beans, the saran wrap, or the measuring cups.

But we're adjusting, and I'm keeping the worms in mind as we figure out how to operate efficiently in our changed space. When we lose an old context for what we do every day--even if we just rearrange things a bit--we sometimes feel out of sorts until we can create comfy grooves in our new spaces. Today, after a lot of finding other spots for old stuff, I found my new context. The brownies have found a home directly above the vanilla ice cream in the freezer, and the bowls now sit nearby.

Add to that mix a spoon and a spot on the patio next to Carter's fountain, and suddenly they're all part of a delicious afternoon snack.