The Rockford Files

Consuming Ourselves

When my wife and I were searching for a house in 1996, we had a few basic requirements: We wanted an older home with a decent-sized yard for our children; we wanted to live in an actual neighborhood, not a new, vinyl-sided ranch development; we wanted to be relatively close to Chronicles’ office; and we wanted to be able to walk to a grocery store.

Whenever I mention that last desire, most people look puzzled.  They can understand wanting to be within walking distance of a school (though, because of the Rockford desegregation case, that was never a concern of ours), but of a grocery store?  After all, you cannot get “one-stop shopping” and “always low prices” at a small neighborhood grocery, and that is how you should decide where to shop—isn’t it?

The neighborhood grocery is an increasingly rare institution, and many (if not most) Americans view it as a slightly more extensive (though less expensive) version of the convenience store: You can pick up a gallon of milk in a pinch, or maybe even stock up on tomato soup when it is on sale, but real grocery shopping requires a Safeway or Kroger or Giant or Meijer or Shoppers’ Food Warehouse or, of course, the nearly ubiquitous 40-acre Super Wal-Mart.  Those who think otherwise may even be regarded as somewhat un-American.  (Toward the end of the Cold War, it seemed that every visiting Soviet...

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