As lifelong suburbia aficionado, moving to a Boston apartment has been something of a shock to my system. Where are the manicured lawns? The sprawling parking lots? And how do you expect me to carry my groceries two miles home from the store?!
Amidst all of my general life confusion, one lesson of city life stood out early and with brutal clarity: ohhhh, that’s why they’re called convenience stores.
My apartment, in a very collegiate part of town, is a central hub from which half a dozen or so small convenience stores spoke out. In the early days, flopping from one to the other for a soda or five-dollar loaf of bread, they seemed eerily similar: a taciturn clerk lording over rows of salty junk food peppered with plastic bins of limp produce, all offered at a gentle 300% mark-up, ’cause, hey, this is America, right?
As I grew more attached to my semi-gritty little neighborhood, though, the differences between the stores started jumping out. There’s the one owned by the Jordanian immigrant, whose 12-year-old son is already reading Shakespeare and studying algebra on the weekends. There is the Indian man who saved up for twelve years to buy the laundromat next door — and, every time I come in for a soda, asks hopefully if I’d like all my change in quarters.
Every store, if you look for it, tells its own story of great investment, adventure, deprivation and moderate success. Virtually all of the convenience stores I frequent (except for the clean, cheap 7-eleven that I ignore on my walk home) are owned by zero-generation immigrants who moved to Boston for a piece of that American fantasy of which we hear so much and yet sometimes forget still exists around us.
To me, an overpriced soda and bag of guilty-pleasure Ruffles were a thoughtless snack, a few bucks plunked on a counter. But to the entrepreneurs who live and work mere feet from my apartment, they are the REM cycle of the American dream.
When I first moved to Boston from Northern California, I bemoaned the dearth of year-round farmers markets, with their opportunity to support small farms and people who still believe in the land. The longer I live here, though, the more it occurs to me that convenience stores are nothing if not urban farmers markets.
That said, sometimes when I have a craving or need a box of baking soda, I’m tempted to run to large national chains, with their market-price stock and cheerful acceptance of debit cards for 68 cent purchases. But what can my dollar possibly mean to a large corporation, versus what it can mean to someone who works twelve, fourteen hours a day actually needing that money?
It may only be a little thing, but so often it seems that the most important actions are. And at least now I can confidently say that my neighborhood convenience stores offer more than just convenience: they offer moments of genuine human interaction in this sometimes heartless city. And isn’t that worth spending a few extra bucks for?
“Convenience Store” femme run @ flickr.com. creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.