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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Closing the Book (Aug. 14, 2011)

Inching toward noon on Sunday. I didn’t plan to be parked at the computer, about to mourn the loss of the bookstore. But here I am. I’m sure I’m not the first person to put fingers to keyboard on this subject, but it hit home for me today so here I am.

I was out and decided to swing by a bookstore I hadn’t been inside in at least a year. I needed bribery material for a child who whose hair soon will be detangled and cut, and who won’t be happy about it.

After parking, I marched inside, bee lined for the front desk and asked a clerk why there was a huge sign out front. Why were they going out of business? Was it because of low-priced online competition that rhymes with “glamazon?” She said there were a lot of theories about why.

As I wandered off to find bribery material, I felt sad. True, I hadn’t been in this store in ages. Although I love reading, I frequent libraries more often than book stores. And I’m among the masses that flock to the discounted online sites, so I can hardly point fingers and accuse others of not going to book stores. I get that the online stores can discount more than the brick-and-mortar stores because they don’t have the same rent, utilities, and personnel costs. (I really get this, because I worked at a book store years ago. Here was how we answered the phone, each and every time: “Thank you for calling Crown Book Stores, where we have the lowest book store prices guaranteed. This is Sarah. How may I help you?” (Gasping, I’d pause to replenish my lungs with air.) We did have low prices because the company paid minimum wage, and considered thirty-six hours per week part-time, therefore skirting paying health coverage! So I really do get that running a book-selling business costs money!) But I’m still sad to see this store close.

Since I was a child, I’ve loved to read. When I babysat a lot as a 12-to-15-year-old, I spent a lot of my earnings at the local book store. I have great memories of these special places. If you love to read, going to book stores and libraries is like kids’ being dropped into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Amazing! There are dazzling sights and colors everywhere you look. There’s something you want to get your hands on at every turn. It’s a wonderland, a feast for the eyes and the mind. You can learn. You can be entertained. You can reload on ideas for creative projects. It’s relaxing and stimulating all at the same time.

At the check-out counter I paid for my three books (one is the earliest Christmas present I’ve ever bought, and needs to be hidden for the next four months. Of course, there’s always the danger that I will have hidden it from myself, too, or that come December, I will have forgotten it entirely. Note to self: write reminder and location onto the calendar in hieroglyphics only I can decipher.)

The clerk and I commiserated about the closing, and she said she thinks that part of the problem is that people come in and treat it like a library, sitting in cozy chairs and reading for hours, and not buying. I’ve done that, too, so I won’t finger-point. But I’m still sad. The world changes, I know. But it can be hard to watch it happen. At best, it’s sometimes a mixed bag. And when it involves something that is meaningful to you, it’s extra hard. I hope the little bookstores are able to make it. I guess I need to be part of the movement of keeping it local, buying from stores I want to see survive.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Super-Duper Markets (Aug. 5, 2011)

"They’re doing WHAT to the old Safeway?”I screeched. Dad hadn’t realized that this would upset me. “They’re renovating it, giving it a facelift,” he’d said a moment before. He was referring to a store near where I grew up. Although it wasn’t the one we frequented the most, I still feel some nostalgia and regret that its original look is being altered Even though I don’t live there anymore, it still bugs me. No one asked me if they could change things from my childhood! It’s a smaller store, especially as compared with the giant stores that are the standard now. It had the familiar Safeway front and gull wing roofline, the glass frontage and lava rock. This was called the “Marina Style,” named for the prototype store on Marina Boulevard in San Francisco. In the mid-1960s Safeways took on this new look, and being that I’m a child of the 1970s, the original look was still in place when my young brain was studying the world. This is very similar to what they looked like:

There must be people out there who don’t care to join in our chit-chat about supermarkets and their symbolism. They would rather pluck their eyelashes one by one than ponder this subject. That’s ok. But if you think about it, food is one of the things that every living creature needs, so if there is one subject that unites us, it could be this one.

For many of us, a trip to the supermarket may be among our earliest memories, if not for its glamour but due to the frequency of our visits. I recall going to two Safeways as a very tiny child in the late 70s, when Safeways still boasted their original 1960s style. I may have been only three or four. Was it the height of the building that made an impression on me? The interior ceiling was so tall. Was it the promise that we’d bring yummy things home? Was it the fun of being lifted into the child-seat of the shopping cart? I still remember the narrow aisles, stocked high with dozens of varieties of whatever you needed. I recall the formica on the check-out stands. I remember the circular, rotating area where you’d load your groceries (it carried your groceries around the circle to the cashier). This predated the one-way black conveyer belt. Another Safeway I remember is now a drugstore, but I recall walking through it, looking up at huge tables of apples (there seemed to be thousands of them atop a metal stand shaped like a pool table, the stand tapering down to a smaller footprint at the base). Why is this so significant to me? Does it connect to some basic urge amongst women to gather? Were my gathering instincts being shaped even at age four?

These days what I appreciate at the super market is completely different than what I liked as a child. Now a harried mom, I’m glad to be in any building that feels different from my house and all its unfinished chores! Here is an informal checklist of how supermarkets are different from my house:

Supermarket floors are spotless. Mine are spotted. At supermarkets there are no milk spills, dirty socks, disgarded clothing items, thrown raisins, dust bunnies, capless markers, or unidentified substances on their floors. (If something is spilled at the store, it’s not left for me to discover and clean up! At least three employees swoop out of nowhere and are on it before the last drop hits the linoleum. Amazing!)

Supermarkets shelves are nicely organized. Mine are a jumble of whatever can fit and (hopefully) not fall down.

Supermarkets play upbeat music. The sounds echoing in my house are “Gimme that! It’s mine! I hate you! (Followed by sounds of kids hitting each other and often, crying.)

For some, going to the store is a chore. For me, it’s almost a vacation!

The original look of those Safeways just brings me back to the innocent wonder I had as a four-year-old. My own four-year-old likes to go to the store. She’s picked up on the idea that supermarkets are a place filled with solutions. She’s vaguely aware of money, but still has that innocence one should have at four. Out of milk? She has the answer: “Let’s go to the store!” It’s a shiny place of bounty. People greet you, pack up your stuff, wish you a good day. And since she’s not paying the credit card balance (!), it’s a completely good experience for her.

Recently I stumbled upon a smaller store I’d forgotten about, as I no longer live in that neighborhood. It’s an IGA, formerly a Safeway, and despite a change in ownership you can see its original design features:

I’ll be back with another ode to supermarkets of old on another day. There are Piggly Wigglys to discuss, after all. For now I’ll leave you with sparkling visions of Safeways dancing in your heads.

Now where’s my shopping list?

Long Live the Quonset Hut (Aug. 5, 2011)

Does that name evoke any images? I’d never heard of them until I started college, when I first stepped inside one for an art class. I remember it clearly. The structure really fascinated me. Curved walls and ceilings are so surprising if you’ve always lived in square-cornered buildings.

(This photo shows one of the Quonsets that UCSD aquired when it took over the land from
Camp Matthews. It's not my photo but this is exactly what they looked like more than twenty-five years later, when I started school there.)

(This is also not my photo but this is what it looked like in the Quonsets where we had art classes.)

Their funkiness really fit with what art students do: forgoing traditional approaches in favor of something less confining. The lack of sharp angles in the huts fit perfectly with what I was experiencing, not only in my art classes but as a brand new college student: new ideas, new freedoms as well as new hurdles. Our intro art classes were very conceptual. We contemplated what art could be. It was air. It was an idea. It was a moment. It was the tangle of voices chanting different things at precisely 10:32am. It was limitless, not bound by rigid rules. Like the Quonset hut itself, art bent where you expected things to be solid.

That useful tool known as Google is helping with my Quonset Hut questions. It turns out UCSD was born on land that was formerly a marine base. In 1967 UC La Jolla (as it was originally known before becoming UC San Diego) acquired the 1,000-acre Camp Matthews. The Quonset Huts remained on university land for more than twenty-five years. While I was there they were all removed to allow for the construction of a fancy-shmancy, huge new building. Although I recognize that it makes sense to put a multi-story building in the footprint of a formerly 1-story building, I felt sad about it. New isn’t always better. Older things have value, too. The quirkiness of these buildings fit with the rustic feel UCSD had twenty years ago. Now it’s much more cutting-edge and polished, which is a mixed thing for me.

Quonset Huts were named after the site of their first manufacture, Quonset Point, Rhode Island. They were lightweight prefabricated structures made of galvanized iron and semicircular arched ribs. They did not require skilled labor to be put together and could be shipped anywhere in the world. The first Quonset hut measured sixteen feet by thirty feet. Apparently the military did not make the original Quonset Huts after 1959, although similar, larger structures have been created since.

When I drive around San Diego I sometimes see a Quonset Hut. Next time I spot one I need to get out and really look at it. One houses a roller skating rink! Some of the local Quonset Huts may be new (it’s hard to tell when you’re driving by, and the basic design has not changed in fifty years so how am I to know if it’s original or simply using the original shape?) The new ones don’t interest me. They are too big, too modern. I like the humble, small ones that are only marginally taller than a person standing, ones with a back story. Online there are many, many photos of Quonset Huts, and buildings inspired by them. There are new homes that borrow from the Quonset’s curves. But for me they are akin to the newer Volkswagen Beetles: cute in their own way but too modern-looking for my taste. I need chrome. I need 50s curves. I’ll take funky charm over speed or modern touches any day.

(This is another photo I got online, showing the interior of a Quonset Hut owned by a woman named Rose, in Kodiak, Alaska.)

(How fun is this photo? A woman and her granddaughter transformed the outside of a Quonset, making a cookie-cutter prefab building into simply fab!)

In rural areas I’ve seen structures that resemble Quonset huts: plastic-covered half-pipe structures, under which are growing things. They are called high tunnels, high hoops or hoop houses, temporary structures that extend the growing season.

Apparently there is a huge number of Quonset Huts in Alaska. Is this because their curved roof made sense in a snowy climate? Or is it because a state like Alaska is not as populated as others, and less vulnerable to bulldozing of old structures in order to make way for housing developments? I’m sure Quonset Huts can be found in quite a few (or all?) states, but rural areas seem to have more of them.

I’m borrowing a book from the library this weekend, Quonset Hut: Metal Living for a Modern Age, by Chris Chiei, and I’m sure I’ll be back to blog more about Quonsets once I’ve flipped through it. It may seem funny to some that I’m so excited about these structures. My friend Ed finds them far more functional than fabulous. But their unpretentious ways appeal to me. I’m sure it has something to do with this, too: when I discovered them I was also discovering who I was as a young adult. It’s easy to feel nostalgic about that sense of wonder that comes upon you when you’re uncovering so many new ideas, new places, new experiences. I was a shiny new college student, and I found some magic in something older, something dusty and to some, outdated. But I say you can find magic anywhere, if you’re open to finding it in unexpected places.