I visited the Temple this past weekend. We needed milk. “Oh, we LOVE Trader Joe’s!” someone hissed with enthusiasm by the unsalted peanut butter. “Oh my god, it’s the best!” her friend rasped in concurrence. When the conversation turns to the tingly pleasure of the TJ’s shopping experience, the votes are nearly unanimous. Nearly. The loving and loveable oddballs who staff the swank grocery store are a blessing, and the product line manages to be all things to all people. My fellow shoppers are the problem, and they are a monster of Joe’s creation.
In 1954, Stanford Business School hotshot Joe Coulombe, the “Joe” in Trader Joe’s, got a job doing convenience store research for Rexall, the aspirin and suppository giant. Coulombe so wowed his new bosses they were soon suggesting their wunderkind consider creating a convenience store chain in California that mimicked Texas’ all-powerful 7-Eleven. Joe jumped at the idea, got financing from Adohr Milk Farms and began building his blitzkrieg of grocery-hipness by opening a bunch of mini-marts all over the state of CA. He called them Pronto markets, and they were a hit. When the company that had financed his Pronto rollout acquired 7-Eleven, though, the handwriting was on the wall.
Casting about for a market segment he could call his own, Joe stumbled onto an article in Scientific American that pointed out that 60% of Americans who qualified for college were going to college, at that time a heartening and newsworthy factoid. In that statistic Coulombe saw (and in fact invented) a new species of grocery consumer; the self-identifying wise-ass who purchased lowly boxes of Froot loops only grudgingly and aspired to a boutique grocery-buying experience beyond the reach of the unlettered masses. And it had to be cheap. Or as Coulombe himself once put it, ”Trader Joe’s is for overeducated and underpaid people, for all the classical musicians, museum curators and journalists,” to which he later pointedly added “ I didn’t say smarter. I said better educated.” Bless him. His odd idea took flight and the flattered smarty-pants set came running. TJ’s took off like a rocket, initially selling everything from cereal to ammunition – a practice that ended with the shooting of Bobby Kennedy in ’68. In 1970, thanks to another Scientific American article (it could be argued that Trader Joe’s fans owe a debt of gratitude to Scientific American Magazine), Coulombe was introduced to “Green” thinking, and an unstoppable grocery cult was born.
On a recent trip to the Trader Joe’s on de la Vina I took several minutes to soak up the atmosphere. Santa Barbarans bustled purposefully through the glass doors with brightened, wide-eyed expressions, the TJ’s crew skipped jauntily about, radiant with what always looks like tightly contained joy. It was, per the norm, a little unnerving. And of course the workers run the sartorial gamut. I’ve never been in a Trader Joe’s anywhere whose crew didn’t boast the sort of mad personnel mix typified by Star Fleet’s HR Diversity Handbook; here a Vulcan, there a Scotsman, over there a busty speaker of Swahili with a salt shaker in her ear. Many of the cashiers at Trader Joe’s could be your favorite uncle or aunt, if your favorite uncle or aunt were inked from ankle to jawbone. Some of the workers stocking the shelves look like they could play bass for Arcade Fire. Though TJ’s is today owned by a German grocery conglomerate, it still operates from a simple premise: rebrand bar soap and waffles as swinging, irony-exuding emblems of cool that gratify the shopper with a stylized sense of self. It works. Hoo boy. It really works. But.
There is an implacable phantom angst haunting Trader Joe’s happy-go-lucky aisles, like the creepy come-hither twins in The Shining, but vegan and scarier. Despite the mediating karmic glow of the TJs crew, the place at rush hour is a parade of Tension Hippies, mate-seeking tofu enthusiasts, wildly pierced Salsa unpackers, and the occasional bewildered housewife looking desperately for Clorox with an “I’m Lost in the Funhouse!” expression of growing confusion and terror. Will the misplaced maven raise her hands to her face and scream, like Patricia Owens in The Fly? I’m waiting for the day. For those who have yet to partake of a Trader Joe’s outing (are there still such people in our fair state?), I offer this portrait of a pilgrimage to the de la Vina store.
The layout of the place is a Feng Shui mishap that begins in the parking lot, where an expanse of slanted parking spaces as snugly patterned as herringbone already puts you on edge. You first thread the needle to get into the de la Vina lot, and there begin worriedly seeking a spot for your little buggy as glandular luxury SUVs stalk the car park like a herd of bulbous predators, their chrome grillwork grimacing menacingly as they hugely maneuver the hairpin turns of the overstuffed little acre. You finally manage to dock your car into a suddenly available little slot and as you pull in there is the inevitable TJ’s customer in hemp chinos, slowing his walk to a theatrical crawl and glaring dead-faced at the empty air because he is angry to have had to slow his gait, angry at your oak-strangling internal combustion engine, and angry that his braided, faux-nativist ponytail went out of fashion with Billy Jack posters and One Tin Soldier lunchboxes.
Inside TJ’s the cool-looking diagonalized aisles create a spiritual and spatial confusion that has artfully tattooed shoppers bumping into each other with pursed lips and clenched/enlightened souls. You pause to look contemplatively at a box of orange lentils for more than 4 seconds, and a Progressive with lavishly pierced nasal flanges and those big ear discs will park behind you and start belting out an aura the color of spoiled bean curd. You feel the New rAge with your spidey sense and allow the pissed off spirit-pilgrim to pass by pressing your back against the reconstituted old-growth-forest-favoring single-ply toilet paper. The soul pioneer breathes out in the yoga practitioner’s version of a disgusted sigh and moves through without acknowledging you.
You go to make your purchase and while in line an overcaffeinated pixie with a bag of Free Trade Shade Grown Madagascar Decaf chirps a rolling 4-megaton blast of happytalk at you that within one withering minute has turned your rigid organic banana to a useless tumescent throwaway not fit for purchase. If there are happier or more loquacious shoppers anywhere they need to be restrained and tranquilized. You leave checkout and enter the narrow little exit aisle where more passive-aggressive maneuvering stands your remaining hair on end as you clip hopefully toward the door. You pick your way back to the car, more frozen expressions glimpsed through expensive windshields as those attempting to park suffer your affronting pedestrianism. You slowly pull your car out of the tiny parking space, receive more blank-faced Califorbearance as you painstakingly steer through the swarming lot with the fingertip-lightness of a vascular surgeon. You get home and heave a sigh of gratitude, and having lusted for a bowl of Cap’n Crunch for two hours discover you bought soy milk by mistake. You weep.
Published in the Santa Barbara Sentinel Vol 4/Issue 3/Feb 7-21, 2015