Sunday, December 31, 2006

A Mom and Pop Grocery Store Makes the Cut – And why it still seems wrong.

DeKalb, Illinois is your average midwestern town, having gone through the financial trends and spurts of the decades like most town's it's size and location. At sixty miles outside of Chicago, it lingered just outside the edge of urban sprawl for most of the end of the last millenium, as early as the 70's, DeKalb area business and land developers rolled out the red carpet for the influx of money that would come with the relocating city folk.

A well known story around town is that of Dee Palmer, a local musician and involved citizen who invested an inordinate amount of money building a high end music store. It was nice, with beautiful display room and expensive grand pianos, but went bankrupt quickly. The market wasn't here. Around town, most Mom and Pop groceries gave in to the larger chain stores. Little Hydrick's on the northeast side, complete with the candy jars behind the counter and aisles barely wide enough for a cart, went broke. About ten blocks away,tucked off of busy fourth street between a laundromat, a gas station, and a car wash, was Inoboden's, another Mom and Pop grocer. This one held on longer than the other's though, because their meat was known throughout the area, and never disappointed. Year after year, the suburbs crept closer, and the chain grocers that had squashed Mom and Pop started getting squashed the by Wal-Mart.

Inboden's was still a goldmine. Come Christmas time, there were lines coming outthe door for their cuts of meat, prime rib, spiral ham, smoked sausage, every niche food you can think of, always down right at Inboden's, at a higher but still fair price. The store itself changed little over the years, it looked much like any other little store had but for the impressive meat counter. Around it the gas station changed chains, the car wash down-sized,and the laundromat eventually went out of business, to be taken over by, Inboden's! The little store that never changed was expanding.

Upon seeing this development, by noting plywood over the laundromat windows, and signs “excusing the construction,” I was intrigued. Over the years I had come to appreciate the store as an anomaly, having found their niche and exploited it to it's full potential, expansion opened up possibilities, but also vulnerability. In a town where the chain stores were constantly crying foul, was Inboden's trying to go big?

The truth is, there wasn't enough property there to expand that way, and they needed some expansion to simply keep up. What they ended up with is a store more than twice as big, set up around the meat counter, with beer and wine and cheese and beautiful hardwood floors. On a Saturday, it was packed, and they were actually running TWO registers, and from all accounts it stays that way. A full-on success story of a Mom and Pop grocery that outlasted the rest and did right. This is the type of thing that should make everyone feel good, even those that fell by the wayside over the years, so why does something still bother me about it?

It was the people in the store on our first visit. As I checked things out, I surveyed the crowd, looking for familiar faces, as all of us that grew up around here make our trips through the businesses as the open and evolve, and I didn't see anyone I knew. This bothers me, that while this business has lasted to a new era, many of it's customers and fellow citizen's have not. Then the new remodel becomes not so much a perfect improvement as to looking much like some specialty store in the mall,complete with unimpressed, slightly rude customers. Looking around the store again, I saw invaders to my once untouched little home town, people who could never appreciate what it took for this place to come this far. After all, they shot up in a month along the highways these days.

For a second, the cynic got hold of me, but could not last, because it's not true. If it looks like a mall store, it is because they are trying to emulate Inboden's, not vice versa. The people are not rude, they are simply strangers,a whole bunch of which should keep finding the little treasure of a store so that it can keep prospering. It is not bad, or anything for me to be bothered about, it is simply change, and there is no fighting it.

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